The conference call came in at 3:30 pm, as planned. The day had been busy, with meetings in midtown, an impromptu stop at Whole Foods at the Time Warner Center, phone calls from press accompanying me as I walked westward along 59th Street.
I was in the process of eating a hasty Whole Foods salad when my client called.
Gulping down my peppermint water, I reached for the phone, affecting an unhurried voice, a voice that said that I was prepared and professional rather than scattered and sweating profusely in the aftermath of my race across town and marathon salad consumption.
As all the parties exchanged their greetings, I quietly directed my browser to CNN.com; after all, I hadn't seen the news since early in the day and wanted to peruse the headlines. Instantly, stark wording filled the screen, announcing a terrorist attack on a seminary in Jerusalem, at least seven dead.
"Omigod, there's been a terrorist attack in Jerusalem!" I gasped, realizing a millisecond later that I had just blown my facade of complete focus. My thoughts flew in a flurry as I scrolled down the page, sifting for information. Seminary? Which seminary? For teachers, scholars, rabbis, visiting American students on their year-abroad program? Who were the victims? Kids? Teens? Adults? Israelis? Foreigners?
My blood ran cold, thinking of the children of friends studying in Israel for the year. Only last year my own daughter was a student in Jerusalem. Her best friend was currently spending her year abroad studying at Hebrew University. Twentysomething years ago, I was a student at Hebrew U as well. That year, the worst thing that happened was the murder of John Lennon in front of his apartment building in New York City.
I switched to Jpost.com. Their report told me that the attack happened at a well-known school, Mercaz Harav, founded by Rabbi Kook, the former chief rabbi of Israel, father of the religious Zionist movement. It described a chaotic scene, blood everywhere, students hiding under desks and in bomb shelters, 50 ambulances arriving, police storming the premises, looking for the terrorist.
Somehow I assumed a bomb. In our time, terrorism has become inextricable from bombs, particularly of the suicidal/homicidal variety. But there was not a bomb. There was a killer with a gun.
Like on an American college campus, except programmed to kill only Jews.
500 to 600 shots fired, announced Jpost.
Though my ear was pressed against the phone receiver, I was no longer on the conference call. I was somewhere in the cybersphere, floating between New York and Jerusalem, mentally multi-tasking, out of time and place, out of my mind.
Weirdly, I heard voices talking animatedly, including my own. No one had responded to my exclamation about the attack in Jerusalem. Did they hear? Do they not care? Evidently not, for we were deep into discussion of strategy and marketing of the project at hand. I saw my right hand scribbling notes, felt my head nod in assent, heard myself murmur my approval. My eyes, however, remained glued on the computer screen, reading, seeking information, switching between Jpost and Haaretz, checking out nytimes.com and the AP report, seeing how Foxnews reported the story versus msnbc.com, going even to the right-wing Arutzsheva.com to see if I had missed any details. I learned that the killer had most definitely been killed by a part-time student.
Did I actually speak out loud or had I simply imagined my outburst?
The phone conference moved into specifics. We compared notes on our best media contacts, connections within the community. Quietly, I took stock of everyone I knew to be in Jerusalem -- my sister, brother-in-law, their kids, dozens of friends and their families, a couple of clients, a project partner, old boyfriends, old relatives, a cast of characters interchangeable with my New York circle of friends and loved ones.
As the New York afternoon grew old and the conference call drew to a close, the personal calls started coming and we all said the same thing to each other. How horrible. It's been so long since something this terrible happened. Is everyone accounted for? Have we heard anything from anyone in Israel?
I spoke to my husband and my sister in Israel. My daughter, Middle Babe, called to tell me that her best friend called to let her know that she was safe at Hebrew University. My youngest, Little Babe, came home from school and I casually asked him whether he had heard anything at school (he hadn't), wondered if I should give him a heads-up about that which he was likely to hear about tomorrow at school.
I counted forward five hours and decided against calling Big Babe, my oldest, studying in Berlin. It was the middle of the night in Europe. He would hear in the morning.
It is now night and the news reports are more complete. The gunman was not Palestinian but Israeli Arab, from East Jerusalem. I do not even know what this signifies. There was widespread celebration in Gaza. This needs no interpretation. Eight are confirmed dead. Several of the wounded are critically injured. One of the rabbis at the yeshiva, weeping, told the Israeli government it could go to hell. Many of the students died clutching sifrei kodesh, holy books. Photographs from the crime scene show bullet holes through glass, bloody tzitzit, body bags lined up on the floor, members of Zaka collecting human remains for burial, blood, blood everywhere.
Tomorrow is Topsy Turvy Day at SAR Academy, the marvelous school Little Babe attends. He has his crazy outfit all ready, cannot wait to get on the bus in mask and cape, a dress rehearsal for Purim, a joyous celebration of the start of the month of Adar.
The murdered students at Mercaz Harav Kook had gathered tonight for special classes on the meaning of the joyous month of Adar. Instead of celebration, there will be funerals, said one of the grieving rabbis.
Emails for phone vigils and solidarity calls with Israel now fill my inbox. Jewish message boards are filling up with reactions to the murders. I find myself wondering if SAR will even celebrate Topsy Turvy Day tomorrow, or seek to postpone it. I try to think like an administrator, like a rabbi, and figure out the right reaction, the proper message, the teachable moment for American Jewish kids in the face of this tragedy in Israel.
It would have been clever to end this post with the assertion that today, everything went topsy turvy in Jerusalem but the reality is that what happened today is nothing too unusual, has plenty of precedent.
And sadly, the lesson for our children -- even now, in the 21st century -- is that being Jewish is sometimes a crime that is punishable by death.