Jewish Journal


September 30, 2004

A Night at Cafe Hillel


Mangled metal and scattered limbs have a way of changing one's perspective.

On a warm night in Jerusa-lem, my friends and I sat at Cafe Hillel on Emek Refaim Street, sipping coffee and beer, enjoying the glorious freedom of the Israeli drinking age of 18. We Americans were happy to be away from home and eager to explore the culture of a new city.

The next night, on Tuesday, Sept. 9, a suicide bomber ripped Cafe Hillel apart, killing seven and wounding dozens. The gut-wrenching images from the scene flashed across the television screen, and I struggled to keep my eyes open. The explosion had reduced the cafe's chic exterior to rubble. Israelis do not censor news footage; I could see blood on the walls and the outlines of bodies on the street. While I could barely watch, the paramedics did not flinch; they had witnessed similar scenes many times before.

I ate at Cafe Hillel the night before the bloodshed, but the night of the attack I was miles away. Others were not as fortunate. Dr. David Appelbaum took his daughter Nava to dinner for a father-daughter talk the night before her wedding. But there was no wedding the next day. Instead, there were two funerals.

In addition to heading the ER at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem, Dr. Appelbaum found time to teach occasional seminars on biomedical ethics and Jewish law at my school in Mevaseret Zion. Normally, if an attack occurred, the hallways and classrooms in Mevaseret would be somber, but life would continue. Dr. Appelbaum befriended everyone, however, and so the entire faculty attended his funeral. The classrooms were empty; the students were eerily silent. Everything froze. In the most horrific irony, the man who had dedicated himself to saving victims of terror died as one.

Two months later, after a time of relative peace, I had pushed thoughts of the bombing into the back of my mind. Like the Israelis who surrounded me, I learned to move on. I went out to town again and, as I was about to hail a cab to go home, my friend, Noam introduced me to a girl: "Matt," he said, "this is Shira."

She said "hi," smiled, and we talked for a minute or two. It was a chance encounter, and I thought nothing of it.

As we walked away, Noam whispered: "You know who that was, right?" I shook my head.

"That," he said, "was Shira Appelbaum. The Appelbaum."

At first, I didn't believe him. The girl I had just met seemed so cheery and carefree only two months after losing her father and sister. This is the numbing effects of terrorism, and this is how it reached into every Israeli household, forcing an 18-year-old to act like everything is fine only weeks removed from losing the foundation of her family.

On Oct. 9, 2003, one month after its destruction, Cafe Hillel reopened its doors to the public, and more than 100 people braved a long line to get inside. The cafe was packed, full of stubborn Israelis celebrating the resiliency of the human spirit.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Cafe Hillel tragedy that, like so many others before and after it, broke so many lives. During the year that has passed, attacks on Israelis have dropped by 80 percent, but peace seems just as far off now as it did one year ago. Consider the attack in Beersheba this week.

Americans, after hearing I had spent a year in Israel, often respond with the same question: "Is it as bad as it looks on the news?"

I am quick to tell any and everyone that I had the best year of my life and almost always felt just as safe in Jerusalem as I do in Los Angeles. But for one night in September, I was faced with a world of destruction that I had only known through television, and the reality scared me more than any news broadcast. For one night, terror was tangible. And although I sometimes want to erase Cafe Hillel from my memory, the Appelbaums and other victims were too important in life -- and too tragic in death -- to forget. So I remember.

Matt Rosenbaum is an entering freshman at University of Pennsylvania.

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