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Weekly D'var Torah: Remembering My Friend Yoni Jesner

Weekly D'var Torah: Remembering My Friend Yoni Jesner
  • Weekly D'var Torah
Leon Covitz, Head of Jewish Life and Jewish Learning

Shalom and Chag Sameach—season greetings. In fact, I am starting to write this Dvar Torah on the eve of Sukkot. What a meaningful and inspirational start to the new Jewish year. It began with the confident, optimistic atmosphere of Rosh Hashannah. It continued, a week later, with the solemnity and intensity of Yom Kippur, which ended with the final, long tekiya gedola of the shofar. When you read this Dvar Torah, we will be in the midst of the simcha-infused festival of tabernacles, Sukkot.

This series of tishrei chaggim—festivals—is a happy one for me, although it is tinged with some sadness. Yoni Jesner and I were very good friends. We both grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. Yoni was much younger than me. He loved being Jewish and took nothing for granted. Every time I visited my hometown I would see Yoni, usually in synagogue or at his home, either in the morning or throughout Shabbat. Yoni was always helping someone. Something needed to be completed and Yoni would be the one who volunteered. You see, Yoni loved his community and the Glasgow community loved Yoni Jesner. He wanted to study medicine when he graduated high school in order to help heal others less fortunate than him. Yoni aspired to be a medical doctor because he felt that was his calling.

At morning prayers on Friday, July 6, 2002, a few days before his brother Ari was getting married, we spoke for the last time. I told Yoni that I was going to be teaching Talmud. He looked into his backpack and said, “I have something for you.” He gave me his lexicon of Talmudic words, phrases and expressions. I told Yoni that I wasn’t sure when I would see him again, since I was in Atlanta and he was about to go to Israel for his gap year. Yoni told me not to worry we would see each other soon. We bid each other farewell. Two months later Yoni was on a bus with his cousin in Tel Aviv, on his way to visit friends. Suddenly, there was an explosion, an act of terrorism. Yoni was taken to hospital, but succumbed to his wounds the next day.

I’ll never forget the Friday morning, on the eve of Sukkot, when my sister called me in Atlanta from Yerushalayim. I, along with Yoni’s family, friends, community and Yeshiva colleagues were in total shock. His parents, Marcia and Joseph, made the decision to donate four of his organs to people who were desperately waiting for a transplant. His kidney was donated to a seven-year-old Palestinian girl, Yasmin Abu Rumeileh. Without it Yasmin would have died. So even after his death Yoni was able to give life to other people whom he had never met. This summed up Yoni Jesner. When going through his belongings a list of 60 of Yoni’s aphorisms were found. They contained life lessons. Two of Yoni’s aphorisms which I connected with were: “If you don’t do it, who will?” and “Do every question on the paper.”

So what is Yoni’s connection to Sukkot? When I think of Sukkot and what it represents to both myself and the Jewish People it reminds me of Yoni Jesner, of blessed memory. I remember him because Yoni personified for me this joyful festival. One of the names of Sukkot is zman simchatenu, the season of our happiness. Yoni was full of happiness. Always with a smile, always asking how he could help, and always doing what he said he would do. Another name is Chag Ha’asif, the festival of gathering. Yoni would be the one who would bring people together both in times of celebration and in commemoration.  

I was never able to return Yoni’s Talmudic lexicon to him, but I still have it today. When it is used I always think of Yoni and his selflessness and acts of lovingkindness. So when I celebrate Sukkot, I think of Yoni Jesner and especially the song mitzvah gedola lee’yot b’simcha tamid—it is a great mitzvah to always be happy. Yoni Jesner personified this verse. When I feel a little sad, I think of my good friend and what he would say. 

Yoni’s family set up a foundation in the United Kingdom which continues his legacy and encourages Jews wherever they are to perform acts of gemillut chassadim, acts of kindness. I am blessed to be part of Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, who not only value helping the community but doing so with a smile.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of you both a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach. Enjoy celebrating the final days of Sukkot.




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