By Jocelyn Polisar, Yoetzet Halacha, first printed on Times of Israel Blog, December 18, 2015
Twenty-seven years ago, I was among the handful of young women who asked Rabbanit Chana Henkin to give a weekly Bible class in a Jerusalem living room, and several months later urged her to establish a women’s Torah academy built on her creative, reverent approach to Jewish texts. When she agreed, my husband and I volunteered to pitch in by establishing its American “friends of” organization while in Boston for his graduate studies. Working from a home office that doubled as our baby son’s bedroom, we recruited students and helped raise the seed money that enabled the school, Nishmat, to open in the fall of 1990. We returned to Israel a year later and for two decades I raised six children and studied Torah largely on my own. When my youngest entered first grade, I enrolled in Nishmat and recently completed its demanding program to train Yoatzot Halacha — women who advise couples on Jewish family law and practice.
Two months ago, I was among the hundreds of Nishmat students and alumnae who joined thousands of mourners in accompanying the Henkins’ son Eitam and daughter-in-law Naama on their final earthly journey. They had been cut down by Hamas gunmen while driving home the previous evening and their four children, witnesses to the murder from the back seat, had instantly been transformed into orphans — a fate heartbreakingly dramatized when their nine-year-old said Kaddish for his parents at the funeral. Though Eitam had become an accomplished rabbinic authority, a promising academic historian, and a devoted husband and father during his three short decades of life, I still remembered him as “Eitami,” the rambunctious boy I first met at the Henkin home while working on the blueprints for Nishmat.
Nothing of Eitam and Naama’s background was known, of course, to the two Hamas terrorists who fired a stream of bullets at a young Jewish couple who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though doubtless pleased to have felled two rising leaders of the Religious Zionist community, they could not have known that their attack would have the added effect of endangering the institution where Eitam taught, and which his mother had built and sustained for a quarter century through vision and sheer force of will. The new responsibilities thrust on Rabbanit Henkin as matriarch of a family struck by tragedy, coupled with the unimaginable emotional toll of the blow, meant that for the foreseeable future she would be unable to provide the leadership and energy that had enabled Nishmat to have an outsized impact on Israel and the Jewish world.
While the murderers did not know they were taking deadly aim at Nishmat, wreaking such havoc was exactly what they had in mind. The goal of terror is not only to instill fear at the prospect of more orphans and bereaved parents, but to strike at the heart of Israel’s vibrant civil society. And what could be a better target than an academy that promotes the antithesis of the Islamists’ worldview — by strengthening its students’ commitment to a Jewish nation whose right to exist Hamas denies and enabling religious women to attain leadership positions that contrast starkly with the traditional female roles to which Islamists cling?
How then should we answer their attack? Strategic thinkers have long understood that to deter terror, one must respond disproportionately. Countermeasures aime