NOTE: I originally wrote this after a friend was killed in the bombing at Hebrew University on July 31, 2002 (22 Av 5762). I was still living in Baltimore at the time. Today is Yom HaZikaron 5773 and today, I stood outside and heard the national Yom HaZikaron sirens from my home in Israel.
Whenever I read news from Israel that includes the names of victims of terror, I force myself to slow down and actually pronounce the names. I know that each name represents a whole world – a person who had a life and a family and all that goes with it.
To most people, reports of the death of Janis Coulter, who was killed when a bomb exploded in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was just another in a long, tragic list.
But not to me. Janis was my colleague. We both recruited American students to study in Israel at our respective universities. More than that, Janis and I were in the midst of that blurry transition between being colleagues… and becoming friends. I genuinely liked her and looked forward to seeing her on occasions not dictated by our mutual work schedules.
A few months ago, I told Janis about a position in Baltimore I thought would be perfect for her. In deciding not to pursue it, she said, “Part of me wants to stick it out here [at the Hebrew University] until the matzav [situation] turns around so that I enjoy the thrill of sending students to Israel again. I don't want to remember this job mainly as a string of crises... ” I was disappointed because I knew I would enjoy having her in Baltimore.
She had a different destiny.
News of her death, which was suspected the whole day of the bombing, but not confirmed for me until late in the evening, hit me hard. I was aware, as I cried for the loss of Janis, that I was also crying the pent-up tears that I was never quite able to summon for other victims whose names I had forced myself to pronounce. Paradoxically, her death freed me to mourn more deeply for all the others.
Any shred of detachment from a bomb in Jerusalem that I still felt, as an American Jew, imprudently at ease in my host country, was torn away. More than ever, Israel commands my full attention. I know I’m not alone in this. Totally counter-intuitively, the day after the bombing, three new students applied to study in Israel. Despite everything. Because of everything.
A few days ago, Janis was my colleague and friend. Now her face and her life story is international news. How bizarre. The circumstances of Janis’ death caused me to wonder. Is it a merit, or a curse, to die because you’re a Jew?
The first night after her death, I had a dream that Janis and I were on a crowded bus together. We both knew she was already gone, but she appeared to me, sitting by a window of the bus, just as I remember her. Even in my dream, it was clear that our time together was brief, because she had to return to the Next World. But as a kindness, she came to me, just so I could talk with her one last time.
When I think of Janis, I think of her humor, which was bursting with silly puns. I think of the significant conversations we had while sitting together at Israel Program Fairs, in between talking with students about studying in Israel. I think of her Boston accent. Her dimpled smile. Her role as a doting aunt. I think of the way she was so filled with personality that her cheerful life force always shot out at me, even from her ordinary emails, the text of which was always blue, like the flag of Israel.
Janis Coulter died as a Jew in Jerusalem. And we are left behind to mourn her.
Thank you, Janis, for touching my life. I miss you already.
The family has asked that donations be made to the Janis R. Coulter Memorial Fund, The American Friends of the Hebrew University, 11 East 69th Street,New York, NY 10021