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I Remember Matthew Eisenfeld

Among the 22,993 fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism in Israel killed since 1860, whom we remember this Yom Hazikaron, is  a friend of mine from seminary, Matthew Eisenfeld.

They were in love with their faith and with each other, and they died together as the victims of hate.

Two American students, Matthew Eisenfeld, 25, of West Hartford, Conn., and Sarah Duker, 23, of Teaneck, N.J., were traveling from Jerusalem to Jordan yesterday when a bomb ripped through a packed city bus. Twenty-five people, including the students, were killed.

Friends shocked by the loss spoke repeatedly yesterday of how bright they were, how dedicated, and of the utter senselessness of their deaths.

“Such wonderful young people, who could have been great leaders, great people, are lost,” Rabbi Benjamin Segal, the president of the seminary where Mr. Eisenfeld was spending a year, said in a telephone interview from Israel. “It is an old story. The best of our youth has always been on the front lines.”

From their home in West Hartford, the Eisenfeld family said yesterday in a statement that they hoped steps toward peace in the Middle East would continue and succeed “so that what happened to Matt never happens to anyone else in the future.” They said that Mr. Eisenfeld was someone who always believed he could make a difference.

His uncle, Larry Port, said: “He was a scholar in every sense of the word. He lived for his family and he lived to learn, and that’s what he was doing when he was killed.”

Mr. Eisenfeld, a Talmudic scholar, hoped to become a rabbi and one day open his own school, friends said. He was studying in Israel as part of the program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where classmates said he was an outstanding scholar and a leader in his class.

When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November, Mr. Eisenfeld was chosen to speak about his death. Mr. Eisenfeld’s roommate, Shai Held, said in an interview in Manhattan yesterday that he spoke about the value and importance of peace.

“He was sympathetic to the peace process,” Mr. Held said. “But I hope his death does not become political fodder. I know that he would have had no sympathy for those who would exploit it.”

Mr. Held said that Mr. Eisenfeld loved music and poetry, and the pair would often sing Jewish folk songs late into the night. He said Mr. Eisenfeld was working on a poem about Ms. Duker shortly before his death.

“He loved books, but he always remembered to love people more,” Mr. Held said.

David Lerner, a friend of Ms. Duker and Mr. Eisenfeld, said that he had recently traveled to Jordan, and had recommended such a trip to them. He said they were on their way to the border on the morning they were killed.

“They were just two of the most special people that I ever knew,” Mr. Lerner said, his voice breaking in a telephone interview from a friend’s home in Manhattan.

Aryeh Bernstein, 20, said his older brother Edward Bernstein was roomates with Mr. Eisenfeld at the seminary in 1994-95.

During what was their first year at the seminary, they lived in an apartment near the campus where Mr. Bernstein said his older brother, Mr. Eisenfeld and Ms. Duker would invite friends over for Sabbath dinners. He described them as very spiritual gatherings, during which they worked hard to make traditions meaningful for their friends.

Mr. Lerner said Mr. Eisenfeld and Ms. Duker met while he was an undergraduate at Yale and she at Barnard.

At Yale, Mr. Eisenfeld helped begin a singing group which focused on Jewish music. “I am realizing now how much the group was shaped by him, how much enthusiasm he brought to it.” said Judah Cohen, 22, a fellow graduate.

The singing group attended an annual theater and music festival at the seminary yesterday and dedicated songs to Mr. Eisenfeld. Last night, 300 people attended a two-hour memorial service at the seminary.

Dorothy Denberg, dean of Barnard College, remembered Ms. Duker as “someone who always had a twinkle in her eye.”

Ms. Duker, who was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, was a member of a special program for gifted scholars and studied environmental science. She was studying science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“Originally, she was talking about settling in Israel, but then she became very interested in environmental issues,” said Ms. Denberg, who served as Ms. Duker’s faculty adviser. “She was also an outstanding writer. She really could have done anything.”

Ms. Denberg said that one of Ms. Duker’s constant interests was the struggle for peace.

“For a terrorist to kill her just kills me,” Ms. Denberg said. “She was such a quiet person and a gentle person. She was very committed to peace in the Mideast.”

Rabbi Kenneth Berger, the rabbi for the Duker family’s congregation, said that Ms. Duker was one of three children, and that her sister is also studying in Israel. He said Ms. Duker and Mr. Eisenfeld had planned to marry, but had not set a date.

At the Jewish Theologial Seminary yesterday, students who gathered for a concert spoke of Mr. Eisenfeld’s death and pledged to honor him with psalms throughout the night. Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin remembered Mr. Eisenfeld as an extremely religious and bright student.

“He was a thinking person, he wanted to be intellectually challenged,” Mr. Scheindlin said. “He was one of those students who really made an impression.”

Rabbi William LeBeau, vice chancellor and dean of the Jewish Theologial Seminary, said Mr. Eisenfeld’s family and teachers all had great hopes for him. “What could be the meaning of violence like this, the utter waste of his life and the lives of all who were killed?” Rabbi LeBeau said. “What could be the value of destroying such a life?”

I last saw Matthew and his fiancee Sarah Duker a matter of weeks before, and a matter of meters from where, they lost their lives.

May their memories be for a blessing.

11 thoughts on “I Remember Matthew Eisenfeld”

  1. I’m sure you don’t want me pointing this out, especially since this guy was such an esteemed scholar and friend of yours… but I have had a few run ins with JTS people. Come to think of it… I found your blog from the JTS. My mother was at Columbia University in the 90s and we had an apartment across the street from the facility. We had lost all our money and my family was using education and grants as a way to keep my family out of homelessness. Just from standing outside the building and talking to people I got to know the illness of liberal Judaism. You say your friend was traveling to Jordan. You say your friend’s spouse was interested in environmental issues (an issue draped in hysterical stupidity). You say he was involved in the funeral of Rabin…. ok stop… before you think I think I’m better… I’ve been raised even further to the Left… it is how I see the holes here and I have no doubt that my family fortune that was lost at the time I was living where I was was because of females making business decisions that cost me and my siblings every penny the family had. You bring up the tragedy here… I survived and this guy didn’t because he was a more disciplined person then me. While I’m a raving “lunatic” on the internet, he’s dead. Because his discipline didn’t stop him from getting involved with Leftism. His discipline didn’t make him paranoid… which is what I am… it’s why I won’t go to an Israel with a Muslim in it. Don’t you wish your pal was the freak who didn’t institutionalize himself into traveling to Jordan? I know you bring him up to honor him, but there is a greater meaning to his death. I have a best friend who is a scholar like your friend. I could see this happening to him. I may not have the memory to be the scholar your friend was… I may not ever amount to a hill of beans by any institutional measure that qualifies what makes a person smart, but I’m alive. Your disciplined scholar friend is dead.

    1. You are right. I don’t think your comment was appropriate, especially given the purpose of this post.

      My friend was a Conservative Jew in an Orthodox seminary, and was a gentleman and a scholar.

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