My Sister, My Home, My Life: The Story of Ruthi Cohen

by | in Faith

image“We gratefully thank You… for Your miracles that accompany us daily.”
(Shemoneh Esrei, Siddur)

The first of the Ten Commandments, “I am your God,” is more of a statement than a command. With it, God inculcated our belief in Him so that we are able to sense His presence—even in mundane phenomena. This is the “pintele Yid” that has given us the spiritual power to overcome the multitudinous challenges to our individual and collective faith. It is the secret of the Jew who will not allow tragedy and misfortune to extinguish his eternal God-given faith.

The stories that follow are those of ordinary Jews who became, unexpectedly, victims of terror, and in the process of coping with their enormous grief were forced to confront their belief in God. Most of these stories do not reflect any blatantly miraculous events. And yet, each of the victims somehow senses the Divine direction of their lives within the context of the tragedies they have endured.

Eight years ago on the shores of Gush Katif, our eldest daughter, Naama, stood against the backdrop of glorious ocean waves and a rich gold sunset, the wind rustling her filmy veil, and married Avner Cohen, a young soldier from Moshav Ganei Tal. It was a fairytale wedding.

Naama was our first child to get married, and I was curious to see how she would get along with her new mother-in-law, and how I would get along with my first mechutenet, Ruthi. This, too, turned out to be like a fairytale. Ruthi became as close to me as a sister.

Ruthi and Hezi Cohen were among the first settlers of Moshav Ganei Tal in Gush Katif in the 1970s, sent there by the Israeli government. While both had professions unrelated to the rabbinate or to teaching, deep faith permeated their everyday lives. This faith was evident in the atmosphere in their home, in even the smallest ways, as well as in the discussions around their Shabbat table. Their sons and daughters were sent to the best yeshivot and ulpanot (girls’ high schools), volunteered as youth counselors in development towns and, today, most of them work in chinuch, education. Torah, faith and Zionism hover upon the Cohens’ lips, and upon everything they do.

Ruthi used to be a lab technician at the health clinic in Neve Dekalim. Her work there brought her in daily contact with hints of new life and with issues of illness and dying. “I was involved personally with the people; I was significant in the kehillah [community],” she says. “I loved my work. My room was one into which people came, closed the door and poured out their hearts.”

Later in life, Ruthi acquired the skill of floral and event design. She used her talent mostly for joyful occasions, but also arranged flowers for memorial events, including a national memorial for Yitzhak Rabin.

Hezi works for the Ministry of the Interior in Beer Sheva, supervising building legalities throughout the southern region. Before most of the Gaza Strip was turned over to the Arabs in July 1994, Hezi had worked in the same profession in the Arab sectors of Gaza. He knew every alleyway in Gaza like the back of his hand. Like most of the veteran families, the Cohens also owned greenhouses in Gush Katif.

Ruthi was one of eight children—seven girls and one boy—who had been raised in a tiny two-room apartment in Jerusalem by Naomi and Moshe Mizrachi, Jerusalemites with Iraqi roots who were steeped in tradition and nationalism. The family was close-knit, as if a pain in the knee suffered by one sibling would be felt by another miles away. It was perhaps the only extended family I ever witnessed in which there was no internal strife or petty jealousies, whatsoever, among any of the family members.

One of Ruthi’s sisters was Rachela, a researcher in Hadassah Hospital, who had married the widower of a close friend. Dov Kol came from a different world, almost a different universe. He worked as a journalist, and had also been a publicist for high-ranking officials and even ministers. His friends were not like Rachela’s—they came from the Bohemian pubs of Tel Aviv, where beer and left-wing politics were the norm. Rachela became not only a beloved spouse, their differences notwithstanding, but a loving mother to Hila, Dov’s infant daughter. Their different religious and political viewpoints did not tear the marriage apart; rather, it created a bridge of understanding in a country that sorely lacked that quality.

Aside from valuing the newfound friendships for my husband and myself, I was joyful beyond words that my daughter was marrying into this family. Eight years and four shared grandchildren later, I still feel the same way.

Shots on the Road
July 2005. As the expulsion from Gush Katif loomed closer, Ruthi held onto her powerful, steadfast faith that it wouldn’t really happen. When my husband and I visited the Cohens, I sensed that I could not even voice the thought of “What if…?” A few of the other families quietly packed and planned, but Ruthi was adamant. It was as if she were communicating: God would not do that to them. God would not exile them from their homes, from their way of life, as if it were inconceivable that the Almighty, whose blessings she called down upon her children every Friday night when she rested her hands upon their heads (and Saturday night as well—as is their family custom), would not answer their prayers.

Three weeks before the date scheduled for expulsion, on the Shabbat that immediately preceded Shivah Asar B’Tammuz 2005, Ruthi and Hezi invited Ruthi’s siblings and parents to spend a Shabbat with them. Their spacious home and grounds in Ganei Tal were a fitting setting for joyous family gatherings, but this particular Shabbat held an underpinning of sorrow. Hope and faith notwithstanding, most of the siblings suspected this would be the last time they would gather as a family under the luscious trees, on the sumptuous lawn bordered by rose bushes that grew out of the sand.

The house filled with laughter as everyone brought in large pots of food from their respective kitchens. The mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi made the Mizrachi clan look like a microcosm of Am Yisrael.

Ruthi remembers that Shabbat with reverence. “It was a Shabbat of neshamah yetera—–the ‘extra soul’,” she says.

“It was a churban bayit from all directions….Our kehillah and our identity were destroyed. Nothing is like it was. Everything was shattered.”

“It was full of spiritual discussion, and we almost didn’t talk about the ugliness of politics, though the temptation was there. Rav Roni Eisental of Hispin, in the Golan, came as our guest for lunch and he stayed the whole afternoon. He and Dov spoke…about the chain of generations of Am Yisrael, and about the fact that everything is in God’s hands.” Dov and Rachela promised that although they would not be able to come back the following Shabbat, they would return two weeks later.

At Shabbat’s end, there were farewells, amidst joy and tears, as the couples piled into their cars for the drive home. Everyone was surprised when Rachela and Dov refused to take Rachela’s parents or Ruthi’s son and daughter-in-law home with them to Jerusalem. They also refused to take Rachela’s sister, even though she had come with them. Although they had had some very minor car trouble on Friday on the way down to Gush Katif, the car had been fixed, so there was no clear reason for their actions. Later, someone commented that “it was the first time in her life that Rachela ever said ‘no’ to her mother.” Bizarrely, Rachela even asked that one of her sisters take their mother’s pots home with her.

“The entire family left in a convoy, and ten minutes later they came back and said that Tzir Kissufim [the main thoroughfare that leads into Gush Katif] was closed due to shooting,” says Ruthi. “We weren’t surprised; we were used to shooting on that road.” The siblings and spouses returned, and spent the extra time “taking videos, talking, laughing … as if we’d been given an extra gift.”

Later the road was re-opened, and the family left in a convoy again. Many friends and families were visiting Gush Katif in those final days, and there was a traffic jam. At the Moshav Katif junction, about halfway between Ganei Tal and the entrance to Tzir Kissufim, a coffee corner had been set up for soldiers. A few young people there saw that Rachela and Dov had three empty spaces in the back of their car, and asked for rides. Though it was totally inexplicable, Rachela and Dov said no. Later the family was to say, “It was the first time in their lives they did not answer a request for help.”

And then, tragedy struck.

“I was alone at home,” recalls Ruthi. “My family had all left and Hezi went to a general moshav meeting. Suddenly I received a phone call from my sister Chana, telling me that there were shots on the road. My family frantically began to call one another, but Rachela and Dov were not answering. At that moment I knew what had happened.

“I called Hezi and told him to come home immediately and we went to the junction. When we got there, we begged someone to tell us what had happened but nobody seemed to know.” Ruthi and Hezi soon found out.

“The people on the road were told by soldiers to go back. What we learned later from Ami Shaked [the former head of security in Gush Katif] was that at the beginning of the evening there had been shots, and the army closed Tzir Kissufim. After checking that it was quiet, the army decided to open it up again. Nevertheless, Ami had put his own forces on the road with three jeeps because he wasn’t calm about it; he was afraid something might happen.

“During the earlier incident of shooting, the projector that lit up activity underneath the bridge had been shot out, so the terrorists apparently came up that way, in the dark, and hid under the bridge during the earlier army search, and nobody found them. After the IDF reopened the road, [some cars went through]. Then the shots began. Ami tried to stop the car that Dov and Rachela were in. They apparently were afraid to run him over, so they swerved to the side of the road—the terrorists were waiting there and shot them at point-blank range. Ami killed one terrorist on the spot, and the IDF killed the second as he was running away.

“Ami said that had anyone else been in Rachela and Dov’s car—my parents, hitchhikers, whoever—there was no chance whatsoever that they would have survived. The two of them were found in each other’s arms, as if trying to protect each other.

“I’m sure that Rachela died with ‘Shema Yisrael’ on her lips, because when anything frightening ever happened, no matter how small, the words that spontaneously flew out of her mouth were always ‘Shema Yisrael.’”

“A Season of Death”
Ruthi does not separate Rachela and Dov’s death by terror of Rachela and Dov from the expulsion. It was a season of death and destruction in many ways, and in Ruthi’s mind, even two years later, the two events are still inextricably linked.

“When I look at the video we took when we went on a last trip with them, or at [a video of] the funeral, or of the gerush [expulsion] from Gush Katif, or of the sheloshim [thirty-day mourning period] gathering, it’s physically all on the same roll of film, just like it’s all tied up together in our experience, our feelings.

“I still can’t bring myself to say the word ‘murder;’ I can’t say zichronam levrachah. It is not yet real to me that they aren’t here. Even two years later, I can’t yet do it.

“Even though there was a shivah, and two years have gone by, and I see Dov and Rachela’s children growing up—the younger ones were only fifteen and seventeen at the time—I suddenly want to call Rachela to ask her a question. My mother still makes the mistake of calling my other brothers-in-law ‘Dov.’ Rachela’s name is still on my lips, the need to call her, to ask her something. She was so significant in my life, in all of our lives.

“In my house now, I walk around and ask, ‘What is this curtain doing in this place? Where am I?’ They took not just my home, but my work, my identity. I don’t know how to answer when someone asks where I’m from, or who I am. If I wanted to explain to someone how hard it is for me now, the person I would have naturally talked to would have been Rachela, so the void [I feel] is for my sister, my home, my life. We have the life before [the expulsion] and after it, and nothing is the same. The murder and the expulsion—and I think that now I said the word ‘murder’ for the first time since it happened. Those three weeks changed our lives forever.

“My parents are not the same either since the murder. From being parents who were supportive, they’ve become parents who have to be emotionally supported by us.

“It was a churban bayit—[play on words for both the destruction of the Temple and destruction of a home] from all directions—the date in Av of the gerush, the death, parents who were murdered together, who were also somebody’s daughter and son-in-law. And our physical home, our kehillah and our identity were destroyed. Nothing is like it was. Everything was shattered.”

Living in the Shadow
On our last Shabbat in Gush Katif, I had said that I wasn’t packing and I’d leave the house with two things [in my arms]—Rachela and Dov’s yahrtzeit candles because it was still during the sheloshim and their photograph. And so it was. And on the way, we stopped and lit candles at the place on the road where they were murdered, and we said Tehillim. Then we took away everything we had placed there, so the Arabs would not come and dance on their blood, but they had no chance to dance on it anyway, because after the last Jews left Gush Katif, the IDF blew up the bridge, so that even if it were possible for us to go back there some day, the spot on which they were murdered no longer exists.”

Since that time, Ruthi and Hezi have made several trips abroad, to see new places—to step out of their lives, so to speak, for a week or two. But I ask Ruthi how she gets through an ordinary week. She did not take a job as a lab technician elsewhere, because nowhere else in Israel is the integrated approach of physicians and laboratory personnel practiced like it was in Gush Katif. “Also,” Ruthi says, “nobody rolls out a red carpet for a fifty-seven-year-old woman.

“But at least one day a week I do something I love. I wondered why I spent so much time and money learning about flower arranging a long time ago, since it was only something I did on the side. I guess Hashem wanted me to have something to do someday that I would love.

“After two years I’m beginning to find my way back here and there, but I lock things away. I haven’t yet screamed the scream. There is no question that I lost the joy [I used to have]. I’m not who I was before and I know that it hurts the family, but I’m lucky that Hezi understands.”

When Ruthi is asked about her faith in the wake of the tragedy, she speaks with extreme fervor. “The murder of Dov and Rachela did not shake my faith even though it happened at the same time as the gerush. We saw that what happened to Rachela was not in our control. The fact that she decided to not give anyone a ride back to Jerusalem was very odd, even though it was a tight squeeze for us to split up those who came with her into different cars.

“I won’t say it isn’t difficult for me and that I don’t have a bad feeling that it happened when they came to spend Shabbat with me, but I see it was from a Hand from Above, because it could have been [more family members]. Had they acted in character, and taken my sister and my parents, or my son and his wife, we might have had to sit shivah for four or five people, not two.

“If God took two tzaddikim like Rachela and Dov, He must have had a reason that we cannot understand. It was as if He chose them with a pair of tweezers out of the thousands of people who left Gush Katif that night.

“Until the last minute we also believed the expulsion from Gush Katif would not happen. We achieved prayers of such power, more than we have ever reached, even on Yom Kippur. Our prayers shook the heavens.

“If the gerush happened anyway, even after all our prayers and entreaties, it was clear that this is what God wanted, just like a father who says ‘no’ even though the child begs him for something. The father must have his reasons. And so does God have His reasons for everything He does.”

Ruthi’s faith has spilled over into the family. They have drawn even closer together, and they get together often to learn Torah in memory of Rachela and Dov. The family has channeled its grief into prayer, study and a determination to continue to live the good life, as defined by a believing Jew.

Today, Ruthi and Hezi live in Yad Binyamin, a moshav near Beit Shemesh. According to the promises of the Israeli government made before the expulsion, they should have been in permanent homes by now. In reality, however, that is still at least several years away.

Ruthi does her best to make her current tiny caravan home pleasant. “I can’t live in a churvah [Hebrew slang for ‘dump’],” she says, “and I go and buy plants and flowers. Whoever comes to visit me knows that if there is a new plant in the house, it’s because I was in a bad mood. My reasons for getting up in the morning are my husband, my children, my grandchildren and the flowers that I water.”

As the years go on, I know that Ruthi and I will forever be separated by a chasm that divides those who have lost loved ones to terror from the rest of us who, thank God, have not. Not even a friend as close as a sister can fathom the cave of grief in which they live, or the incomparable strength of faith demanded of them to climb out of that cave and continue.

Every year, on Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, family and friends gather at the double gravesite of Rachela and Dov, near sunset time. They then go to a nearby hall, which is always packed with the couple’s large extended family, with Rachela’s colleagues from Hadassah and with Dov’s friends from the media.

Ruthi presides over the decor. Yahrtzeit candles are placed on a table at the front of the hall, among artistically arranged flowers, whose colors complement the tablecloths. Memory books and photo albums are on other bedecked tables, and more flowers decorate the tables laden with sandwiches, cakes and fruit to break the fast. Rolling videos are in one corner. Speeches are made by family members and friends, and prayers are said. Ruthi moves through the hall, in control, with a kind word and greeting for everyone. Babies fill the arms of the next generation. Ruthi’s eyes are damp with tears, yet one senses a subdued contentment beneath the sorrow, as she sees that life goes on.

Toby Klein Greenwald, who reported extensively on the expulsion from Gush Katif, writes, edits and directs educational theater. She and Ruthi Cohen share four grandchildren. The first three were expelled from Atzmona, in Gush Katif, and the fourth was born in the resettled community of Shomria, in the Negev. His parents named him Yehuda, so he would some day be a leader in Am Yisrael.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2007.

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