An unfathomable calamity: 1,000 deaths, each a world lost

An unfathomable calamity: 1,000 deaths, each a world lost

In the interminable official count, they were just numbers. But each of Israel’s virus victims was a life, and in death leaves a universe shattered. Here are some of their stories

A medical worker holds the hand of a coronavirus patient at Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh) in Beer Yaakov, southeast of Tel Aviv, August 20, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A medical worker holds the hand of a coronavirus patient at Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh) in Beer Yaakov, southeast of Tel Aviv, August 20, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The idea that one who saves a life saves the entire world is both a cliche and a bedrock of Western theology. Slightly less well known is the sentence immediately preceding the Mishnaic adage: The loss of one life is the loss of the entire world.

Sometime between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, Israel lost its thousandth world to COVID-19. A sun forever set.

The number 1,000 is not unfathomable in and of itself. It is familiar, mundane. But in many ways, the number 1 is: One life lived, now forever lost, in all its depth and breadth, no matter how short or how long.

Each of those thousand “ones” was an entire world, of experiences, of connections, of loves and hates, smiles and grimaces, passions and fears.

They ranged in age from 19 to 102. They were Jews and Arabs. Right and left. Ultra-Orthodox and secular, farmers and tech entrepreneurs, soldiers and peace activists, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, neighbors, lovers, philosophers, travelers, jokers, tricksters, scientists, heroes, cowards, us.

One. One thousand. One thousand worlds lost.

These are some of their stories:

Aryeh Even, 88

On March 21, 2020, Aryeh Even became the first Israeli to succumb to COVID-19.

Even was born in Hungary in 1933, and survived the Holocaust by moving first to a safe house protected by the Swiss embassy and from there sneaking with his mother and brother to a house protected by the Swedish embassy.

“There were a lot of people in the… cellar. And somehow, I don’t know, I don’t remember where the food or water came from, but we survived,” he told Yad Vashem in a video testimony.

Even immigrated to Israel in 1949 with the Habonim youth movement, and later became an air force mechanic.

Aryeh Even, Israel’s first fatality in the coronavirus pandemic (Courtesy)

After marrying his wife Yona, he moved with her around the world as part of her work as a diplomat, from Tokyo to New Delhi, but eventually settled down in Jerusalem, where he worked for the tax authority, according to Haaretz.

In 2012, after Yona died, he moved to the Nofim old-age home in the city, the site of one of the first major outbreaks of the coronavirus.

When he contracted the disease Even was moved to Shaare Zedek medical center, where he was put in the isolated coronavirus ward.

One Friday night, as patients were sitting down to a Shabbat meal in the ward, Even’s heart rate began to show signs of arrhythmia. As a doctor and nurse rushed to put on protective gear to reach him, other patients gathered around his bedside, Rachel Gemara, a nurse on call at that moment, told The Times of Israel.

Moments before the doctor and nurse broke into the room, patients “put their hands on him, they said [the] shema [prayer], they said goodbye to him,” she said. “They said, ‘Aryeh, we’re with you, we love you,’ they really comforted him.”
In a statement after his death, his family described him as a “a dear and beloved man, living a full life, devoted to his family, a strong man until the end.”

They were sorry, they said, that they could not also have been there for his final moments.

Ahmed Abu Naama, 92

Ahmed Abu Naama saw and achieved a lot in his 92 years, until he was cut down by COVID-19 in April.

Born in 1928 in the Galilee town of Deir al-Asad, he lived through the British Mandate, Israel’s War of Independence and its temporary evacuation of the residents immediately afterwards, and the confiscation of land for the creation of the Jewish development town of Karmiel, now a city.

During the 1980s, Abu Naama headed his town’s local council. According to son Mahmoud, one of Abu Naama’s 16 children, his father was one of the most respected local elders, called upon to solve conflicts both within and beyond Deir al-Asad.

Ahmed Abu Naama from the Galilee town of Deir al-Asad, in an undated photo. He died of coronavirus in April, aged 92. (Courtesy)

“Everyone knew him. He was a strong personality. He spoke the truth,” Mahmoud recalled.

None of the family members know how Ahmed contracted coronavirus. When he did, they all took tests that were negative.

“He spoke to us every day by phone and video call from the hospital, and he’d joke with us,” Mahmoud said.

“Then, suddenly, they told us his situation wasn’t good. There were problems with his blood pressure and his lungs, even though he hadn’t touched a cigarette for 25 years. They put him on a respirator for two days, and after that he died. They wouldn’t let us see him. When he was brought to the cemetery, he was wrapped up. Only 21 family members were allowed. We all wore masks and protective clothing.”

Tamar Peretz-Levy, 49

Two four-year-old twins became orphans early on in the pandemic, in March, when their mother Tamar Peretz-Levy, 49, succumbed to complications arising from coronavirus.

Peretz-Levy, one of eight children, had wanted to create a family for years. She met her husband, Shimon Peretz, when she was 40 and working as an engineer at ELTA Systems Ltd, an Israeli provider of defense products and services based in Ashdod.

In 2016, they had two twin boys, Omer and Noam.

Tamar Peretz-Levi, 49, of Lod, who died of the coronavirus on March 31, 2020. (courtesy)

But months later tragedy struck when Shimon died of a heart attack, leaving Tamar to bring the boys up alone in the central city of Lod.

Shortly after the start of the lockdown in March, Peretz-Levy developed a sore throat and went to the doctor, who sent her home with antibiotics. Several days later, she was being rushed to hospital in an ambulance.

There, she was anesthetized and never woke up. A week later. on March 30, she died, becoming the first middle-aged victim of the disease in Israel.

“Her request was, she asked me and my sister Fanny ‘Watch over my kids for me,” her sister Sima Calvers told Channel 12 news. “I got very angry. I told her, ‘Stop talking like that. You’re coming back.’ I wonder if she had a feeling that she would not return.”

According to the Yitzhak Shamir Medical Center in Beer Ya’akov, where she was hospitalized, Peretz-Levy had suffered from preexisting medical conditions.

One of Peretz-Levy’s nieces told the channel that when the aunts and uncles told the boys that their mother would not be coming home but would guide them from heaven, “they cried their eyes out until they fell asleep.”

The family talked often about “Daddy Shimon” and how he looked after them from heaven, so when Tamar died, the idea was not new.

More than NIS 2.235 million has been raised on a crowd funding site to help the twins.

Peretz-Levy’s sister Fanny and Fanny’s husband Benny have taken in the two boys, moving into Tamar’s former home in Lod in order to give the twins a sense of stability.

In July, the boys turned five, and the family held a small birthday party for them at home, due to the pandemic. “It was hard for us adults, like every day is hard,” Fanny told Yedioth Ahronoth. “We haven’t absorbed that she is not with us and these kids have no mother or father, we go around with huge hurt every day and every moment. There’s not an hour that we don’t think about her. We look at the kids and we see her.”

Shalva Zalfreund, 64

In early July, Petah Tikva kindergarten teacher Shalva Zalfreund wrote a letter to the parents of her students telling them that she had contracted coronavirus, apparently while at work, and possibly from a child who had been sent to preschool despite having a family member in isolation.

Please, she begged, noting that she was in an at-risk group, don’t break the rules.

“For me, it no longer matters who I contracted it from and who violated isolation. I just beg and plead for the grandparents, neighbors and older relatives who surround us and do not deserve to die, even if they have underlying illnesses,” she wrote.

Shalva Zalfreund in an undated photo (Courtesy)

Two weeks later she was gone.

Zalfreund was a daycare teacher for 47 years, from age 18, her daughter Gitty Segal said.

“Anyplace she went or anyplace she was, she left her stamp. She brought up generations of hundreds of kids and no matter where she was, she gave her heart and her maximum,” Segal told a local Petah Tikva publication.

Zalfreund was born in 1956 in Bnei Brak, the daughter of Haim Zeev and Rivka Bronstein. She later met her husband Rabbi Alexander Yaakov Zalfreund and they had four daughters and two sons together.

In 2014, Rabbi Zalfreund, a kashrut supervisor, was killed on his way home from work when he was hit by a bus while crossing a street in Petah Tikva.

“When my father was killed and she went through some very hard times, she [still] returned [to work] with all her strength and all the giving of her soul,” Segal said.

Sometime after contracting the virus, Zalfreund’s condition worsened and she was taken to Beilinson hospital, where she succumbed to the disease on July 17.

Following her death, parents in her kindergarten pushed against the claim that one of their kids had passed the virus to her, but Segal said casting blame was never the point.

“She was a woman of peace and not a woman of fighting, and I’m sure that it’s not pleasant for her, everything that is going on here. We believe in a world to come and we believe that she is up above and it is good for her and this is not the way she would have wanted to end her life — in an argument,” she told local paper Melabes. “She wrote the post to warn, to plead out of a sense of mutual responsibility because that was her way.”

Suzy Levy, 66

For 45 years, Suzy Levy worked at Sheba Medical Center’s Ear, Nose and Throat Department. Despite the fact that she was of retirement age she continued to go to work every day even as coronavirus infections multiplied around her, and eventually contracted the disease.

Sometime in the late hours of April 26, she became the first nurse in the country to fall prey to the disease. She was 66.

Levy began working at Sheba in 1974 and quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the medical center’s top nurses. In 1995, she was made the head nurse at the ENT Department.

“Suzy had a noble heart. She knew how to give the best of herself, even if it was difficult for her,” said Liat Cohen, a hospital administrator.

Levy eventually settled down in Shoham with her husband Itzik, and had two boys, Ofir and Elad.

“I won’t forget the smile that would pop up on your face when I would tell you that the food you cooked was just great. I won’t forget how you would look at me while I ate and smile from the side,” her son Ofir wrote in a Facebook post after her death. “I’ll miss the times you would jokingly get mad at me every Friday afternoon when I would steal into the kitchen while you were cooking and snatch a schnitzel from the pot.”

אמא שלי…ביום ראשון 26.4 בשעה 9:21 הלב שלי הפסיק לפעום.ביום ראשון 26.4 הלב שלי נחצה לשניים.ביום ראשון 26.4 בשעה…

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Ofir Levi‎‏ ב- יום שישי, 8 במאי 2020

When the pandemic began, her sons begged her to stay home, but she insisted on continuing to go to work.

“She told me, ‘Elad, I can’t leave the ward now. Coronavirus will end, and then I’ll think about what to do,” her son Elad told Channel 13.

In late March, Levy came down with the coronavirus and her condition quickly worsened. Within days, she was sedated and put on a ventilator.

“Itzik, I’ve agreed to be put in intensive care. Watch over my kids,” she told her husband over the phone just before going under, he told Channel 13 news.

Less than three weeks later, her sister Ahuva, 72, passed away from the virus in the northern city of Tiberias, but Levy’s family was never able to tell her. Barely a week after Ahuva’s death, Suzy herself died.

Her death sent reverberations around the country, and medical workers nationwide held a minute of silence in her honor the next morning.

“Mom, your pure heart, modesty, unending giving as a mother and a nurse will light our way forever,” Ofir wrote. “Mom, you were our whole world, you’ll be in our hearts forever.”

Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, 79

Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, died of the coronavirus on April 12, extinguishing the light of a man mourned as a “pillar of Torah and halacha” by the current chief rabbi.

Born in 1941 in Jerusalem, Bakshi-Doron was initially a follower of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, a leading figure in national-religious Jewry in Israel.

He later moved toward ultra-Orthodox streams of Judaism and was chief rabbi of first Bat Yam and then Haifa, eventually becoming close with Shas party founder Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who recommended he replace him as chief rabbi in 1983.

Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron attends a party for kids who received their first Torah book in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2018. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

While Bakshi-Doron did not win the post then, in 1993 he successfully became the Rishon Lezion, a title given to the chief Sephardic rabbi.

During his time as chief rabbi, he devoted efforts to interfaith dialogue, and together with his Ashkenazi counterpart Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau met with pope John Paul II during the 2000 papal visit to Israel.

“The great genius has been taken from us,” Rabbi Lau said after his death. “I am sad for you, my brother. It was an honor serving alongside you. Together we went through 10 tough years that included the [1995] murder of [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin and the verbal violence that followed. We stood together like a brick wall. There was nobody as honest as you.”

Bakshi-Doron and his wife Esther, who died in 2005, had 10 children.

In 1982 he published a book of halachic rulings and homilies, including a number of influential verdicts, such as allowing Jews in East Jerusalem to be guarded by a motorized army escort when walking to the Western Wall on Shabbat.

After leaving the rabbinate, he ran a number of charitable organizations under the name Binyan Av. In 2017, he was convicted of fraud and breach of trust and sentenced to probation, as well as a fine, for his role in a credentials-for-cash scheme.

“What I remember of my father was his great humility. He was always there for any Jew and gave everyone the benefit of the doubt,” his son Rabbi Ben-Zion Bakshi Doron said. “He had a calling for public service. He was not beholden to any one community, his great heart filled the whole State of Israel — he was a man of the Jewish people.”

Moshe, Yechiel and David Oberlander, 60, 58 and 38

For one Jerusalem family, tragedy struck three times in quick succession, as the coronavirus claimed brothers Moshe and Yehiel Oberlander, as well as Moshe’s son David.

Moshe Oberlander, 60, was a well-known and respected figure in the Belz Hasidic community. He and Yechiel, 58, were both born in the US before moving to Israel. They were as close as brothers could be and often worked together.

Moshe, who was for many years the director-general of the Belz Institutions in Jerusalem, was also known as an expert marriage counselor and would also counsel bridegrooms before their wedding.

Yehiel, who was also a marriage counselor, was one of the righthand men of the leader of the Belz Hasidic sect, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach.

In July, Moshe caught the coronavirus while at a family event. Two and a half weeks later, he died.

“I am in complete shock,” one person who was counseled by him said. “This man invested more than two years in me, in endless meetings, to save my marriage. From time to time, he would say ‘It’s worth it, even if we move forward by five percent.’ And it was always with a smile and ceaseless encouragement.

“I just can’t believe it. A huge personality, he could weep when he felt the suffering of the person in front of him. As I write this, I’m in tears. It’s so hard for me to think of him in the past tense.”

Two weeks after Moshe’s death, brother Yehiel also succumbed to coronavirus.

A week later, as the family marked 30 days since Moshe’s passing, his son Rabbi David Oberlander died of the disease as well.

David Oberlander had been a leading figures of the Belz community in Ashdod. A month before his passing, he celebrated his son’s bar mitzvah with his father and uncle.

Avishalom Rozilyo, 33

Avishalom Rozilyo, one of the youngest victims of coronavirus in Israel, beat death 12 years ago but succumbed when it came knocking a second time round.

A native of Migdal Ha’emek in northern Israel, he contracted a rare form of cancer during his military service. There were only seven similar cases worldwide, and Rozilyo was the only one to beat it. That he did so was largely thanks to a bone marrow donation from his sister.

Once recovered, Rozilyo went on to help other cancer sufferers as a volunteer, meeting his wife to to be, Lihi, while she was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Four years ago, with both in good health, they got married.

In May 2017, he surprised her with balloons and sparklers to mark nine years since his transplant and four since her final radiation treatment.

עד היום *חשבתי* שנגמרו לי המילים לתאר אותך, כמה אתה מלאך על פני הקרקע וכמה אני זכיתי בבעל המדהים בעולם.היום אני *בטוחה*…

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Lihi Krispel Rozilyo‎‏ ב- יום ראשון, 21 במאי 2017

She responded by writing on Facebook, “I thought I had already run out of words to tell you what an angel on earth you are and how I have the most amazing husband in the world. Today, not a single word is left in my mouth to explain to the world who you are and what you mean to me. May we celebrate healthy and happy birthdays together, my sweet potato. I just love you more than myself.”

In June last year, Lihi gave birth to son Rafaeli.

All seemed well. Until coronavirus struck them both.

Lihi managed to fight off the disease. Avishalom could not. He spent several weeks at Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, where he was put on a ventilator and lay unconscious for almost a month. Only briefly regaining consciousness, he died in May. He was just 33.

Last week Lihi took Rafaeli to kindergarten for the first time.

Again taking to Facebook, she wrote, “Four years have passed since you proposed to make me yours forever… I never imagined that four years later I would accompany our Rafaeli to his first day at kindergarten without a father. The longing burns my heart, sweet potato. Take care of us, from wherever you are.”

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