This is always such an emotional time of year for my family
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This is always such an emotional time of year for my family

Marsha Gladstone, mother of the late Yoni Jesner who was murdered by a suicide bomber in 2002, reflects on Israel's day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims for terror.

Yoni Jesner and Marsha Gladstone
Yoni Jesner and Marsha Gladstone

Every year, Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, is always an emotional time for me and my family. My beloved 19-year-old son Yoni was killed by a Hamas suicide bomber on September 19, 2002 in Tel Aviv.

This year, the day was especially powerful for me as my son’s memory was honored at the annual Yom HaZikaron ceremony held at the Latrun Memorial Site by Masa Israel Journey.

This organization founded by the Jewish Agency and Government of Israel, provides study, volunteer, and career opportunities in Israel for thousands of young Jews from around the world, a mission my beloved Yoni similarly devoted his life to.

Yoni was an incredible human being, full of such promise and passion. He had the rare ability to befriend anyone and had the zaniest sense of humor. He was extremely caring and would always ensure no Shabbat afternoon would go by without him and his three siblings visiting their grandfather.

He had an unshakable sense of what was right and fair and would never shy away from speaking up for these values.

Yoni Jesner

My son was a gifted student and so busy with community work that I often jokingly protested he was not home enough.

These activities embodied his deep commitment to the Jewish people and Israel. He was the force behind the rejuvenation and expansion of Glasgow Bnei Akiva, his local religious Zionist youth group. He was responsible for sending the Jewish Youth delegation to the Scottish Parliament. He was a Jewish Studies teacher and ran youth services at his local synagogue where he also assisted the rabbi.

Yoni even found the time to tutor other kids and to study himself at the Glasgow Yeshiva. He was also the youngest volunteer ever at the Glasgow Jewish burial society (Chevra Kadisha), an extraordinary undertaking for a young man with so many other commitments.

It was because of his devotion to the burial society that I took up volunteering there later in his memory.

Through his hard work, Yoni was admitted to the University College London to study medicine, but he chose to first take a gap year in Israel to study at a yeshiva. He always possessed a deep connection to Israel and wanted to strengthen this tie even further by living and studying in the Holy Land.

Although he did not plan to stay at Yeshiva for more than a year, he found the experience so spiritually nourishing that he decided to further postpone his university studies and commit to another year at Yeshiva. At the start of his second year, when Yoni traveled to Tel Aviv to be with family for Sukkot, my son was tragically killed in a suicide bombing. When Yoni died, we knew he would be buried in Israel, a place deeply meaningful to Yoni and to our family.

We could never have taken him away from the holiness of what Israel represented to him, so we never gave that decision a second thought.

Yoni Jesner in Israel

When the question of organ donation came up, we had never thought about it, so my family consulted the late Rav Lichtenstein. He told us that there is no greater mitzvah than saving a life, and we agreed.

Since Yoni dreamed of saving lives as a doctor, we knew he would have wanted to donate his organs and save as many people as he could.

Yoni’s organs ended up saving three people, two Jewish men and a young Palestinian girl.

My family discovered that a 7-year-old Palestinian girl Yasmin, had received one of Yoni’s kidneys after a reporter called our house and asked how we felt about it.

We said, “Anything that can make something good come out of this senseless tragedy, we think that’s a wonderful thing.”

A life is a life, and each is valuable.

It was very important to me and my family to meet Yasmin, which we were finally able to accomplish a year after her transplant. It was moving to see that this girl had a photo of Yoni above her bed and called my son her brother. Interestingly enough, my daughter who was 10 at the time, also had this same photo of Yoni above her bed, a coincidence I found to be tremendously comforting.

It was a full-circle moment seeing how Yoni’s presence was very much alive in all our lives, even the life of this young Palestinian girl he never met.

When the girl was 18, I was able to visit her again, and it was beautiful to see she was now a healthy, strong adult.

Yoni’s legacy also lives on in Yoni Fogelman, whose parents named their son after mine.

Mitch Fogelman, Yoni’s father, later said: “We saw in Yoni Jesner a role model for the kind of person we wanted our son be: ethical, responsible, family-centered, studious, reliable, and willing to make sacrifices for the benefit and enrichment of others.”

Yoni Fogelman is now a composer in residence at the L.A. Philharmonic, and his dad keeps me updated on his son’s accomplishments with yearly letters.

Losing Yoni was devastating and remains extremely difficult. Over the years, I have learned that it is counterproductive to fight the grief. Almost 20 years later, sometimes I find myself suddenly in tears, and being kind to myself is the healthiest way to cope. I have accepted that things will never be the same, but they can still be okay.

A table can stand on three legs just as well as four if you move things around a bit!

When tragedy strikes, you can either sink or swim, and I knew that I had to swim for my family.

I learned that I could take everything I loved about the person I lost and use it to bring more goodness into the world, which is what I did. Shortly after Yoni’s death, I founded the Yoni Jesner Foundation in memory of my son and his commitment to social action.

The charity has honored more than 1,500 teenagers with the “Yoni Jesner Award” for completing at least 20 hours of volunteer work and has funded gap years in Israel for 15 young people where they work on community projects and engage in interfaith dialogue. The Foundation also educates towards a better understanding of halachic organ donation.

Yoni’s middle name was action, and I see Yom HaZikaron as not just a call to remember, but a call to action—to come together as a community to remember all those who have sacrificed their lives so that we can have the State of Israel and live our lives as free Jews.

This is why I find it befitting that Yoni and so many other incredible men and women were commemorated at this year’s Yom HaZikaron ceremony held by Masa. Yoni so dearly cherished his gap year in Israel, and it would warm his heart to know that more Jews than ever get to enjoy such an experience because of these impactful programming initiatives.

Yom HaZikaron gives me and my family a chance to reflect on everything that Yoni was and to associate his life and death with Israel and what Israel means to us.

The strength of our family’s connection with Israel has not been diminished by what happened to him, but rather strengthened. As difficult as this day is for us emotionally, it is a lovely time to share a common memory with Israelis and Jews from around the world. Unfortunately, so many Israelis and Jews have lost relatives or friends, and because it is a common experience, that sometimes can alleviate the pain of an individual loss.

Even if you have not experienced a loss yourself, you can feel the communal grief and connect through participating in this event with the global community. This day gave us the valuable opportunity to come together, remember and honor the loved ones we have lost, and to cry if we are so moved. I truly believe that every time you cry, you heal.

  • Marsha Gladstone is the mother of the late Yoni Jesner z”l who was a victim of terror in 2002.

 

Help perform the greatest mitzvah: save a life

While life in Israel has returned to normal and hopes are high that Britain is set for a summer without restrictions thanks to vaccines, for billions around the world there is no such imminent light at the end of the tunnel. In the majority of countries around the globe, particularly the poorest, the vaccine rollout has barely kicked off.

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We have never before done this for any charity fundraiser but it's hard to recall a campaign that affects so many people, and indeed an entire planet aching for a return to normality. Just like the Chief Rabbi and Rachel Riley, we hope to boost the mission to deliver two billion vaccines, 165 million treatments and 900 million test kits around the world by the end of this year.

Please donate as much as you can, in the spirit of the Talmudic sages: “to save one life is to save the world entire”

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