I have done this trip, taken this route, so many times. I pointed out when the rough weather would hit because we were traveling through the mountains, how many miles to the next rest area, which exits had the gas stations with the better facilities, and why Waze routed us this way instead of that way. Even the timing was not unfamiliar to me. Leave at 4:45 a.m., drive hundreds of miles, and be back home 16 hours later.
But this trip was different. It was different because I was in the back seat for a good part of the trip instead of in the driver’s seat. I was in the company of two other community rabbis (Rabbi Daniel Yolkut and Rabbi Elisar Admon) instead of with my wife and children, or alone. The purpose of the trip was not to go visit immediate family or get matzah or etrogim or go to a wedding or even to attend a funeral or make a shiva visit for someone I knew or with whom I was associated. It was to visit strangers whom I had not previously met.
And it was not to Philadelphia, Passaic, Teaneck, Monsey, Borough Park, Manhattan or any of the places I regularly visited on these trips, on this route. The destination was Jersey City and then Williamsburg.
I lived in Jersey City and served as a rabbi there right after we were married. My wife was born there; two of our children were born there. But I left Jersey City in the summer of 1991 with my car packed and a bed tied to the roof, and I had not really had any reason to return to Jersey City since then, except once or twice in the first couple of years after I left, to go to an old hat store in downtown Jersey City, or over the years to use the 1&9 approach to the Holland Tunnel. In all these years I had not returned to actually spend time in a Jersey City home, or to visit a Jewish person there. And I rarely went to Williamsburg, except for a wedding, once in a long while, at one of the wedding halls there that many people in the area use.
Our plan was to visit the Ferencz family in Jersey City and then the Deutsch family in Williamsburg. We did not have access to the any information about the possibility of visits to the families of Det. Seals or Mr. Rodriquez. When we arrived at the Ferencz home, the men were still davening Shacharit so we walked over to the scene of the murders. The store was all boarded up, with notes and flowers and candles on the sidewalk in front of it. There was no need to go inside (even if we were able). Rabbi Admon and I had a pretty good idea of what it looked like inside. Next door, in the yeshiva building, there was considerable activity including prayer and study, although we were told that classes had not yet resumed. When we returned to the Ferencz home, and then later when we arrived at the Deutsch home, we were welcomed warmly, as one would be welcomed by family. They were genuinely appreciative of, and comforted by, three rabbis from so far away, from Pittsburgh, representing their entire community, taking the time and making the effort to come and visit.
Even in those two homes and at those two moments Jewish geography was in full force. There was another rabbi there who knew Rabbi Yolkut; there were people from Teaneck who were neighbors of my uncle; there was a man whose cousin is the father of a woman in Pittsburgh. But on a much deeper and elemental level, there was a connection between us and everyone there. As tragic as the moment was, maybe the trip was not so different. There was Jewish life there. There was a resolve to pick up the shattered pieces of lives and to go forward. There were Jews of different stripes reaching out to support and strengthen each other. There was the beginning of the transition from the disbelief that “it could happen here” to the realization that it can happen anywhere, to any of us. There was the appreciation that there is no you, me or them. There is only us.
Rabbi Yolkut, in his Facebook post, captured the emotion of, as he put it, “these two wrenching but inspiring shiva visits.” He wrote: “Hearing a young boy saying Kaddish for his mother, listening to an uncle talk proudly of his murdered nephew’s learning and middos … feeling the interconnectedness of Klal Yisroel, makes every minute of this whirlwind trip powerful.” pjc
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman is the rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation and the president of Gesher HaChaim Jewish Burial Society.