'I prayed that there would be no more bereaved families'

Bride’s joy turns to sorrow after Elan Ganeles killed driving to her wedding

Maayan Rockland’s childhood friend flew to Israel to be part of her happiest day; family shielded her from tragic news during celebration

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The wedding of Maayan Rockland and Ariel Lewis, Ma'ale HaHamisha, February 28, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
The wedding of Maayan Rockland and Ariel Lewis, Ma'ale HaHamisha, February 28, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Maayan Rockland was preparing for laughter and dancing on Monday evening. The Jerusalem resident, who had grown up in West Hartford, Connecticut, was a few short minutes away from marrying her fiancé, Ariel Lewis.

But before heading to the huppah, Rockland, an IDF combat veteran who doesn’t hide her passion for Israel, took a moment to pray.

“I prayed that everybody who was coming would arrive safely and get back home safely,” she told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “And my prayer under the huppah was that there would be no more bereaved families in Am Yisrael,” the people of Israel.

Joy and sorrow exist simultaneously in Judaism — the Book of Ecclesiastes speaks of “a time to mourn, and a time to dance” — and in the land of Israel. Even the site of Rockland’s wedding venue, Kibbutz Ma’ale HaHamisha, just west of Jerusalem, is named for five workers murdered by Arab gunmen in 1937 as they went about paving a road.

The night before the wedding, Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, two brothers from the settlement of Har Bracha, were shot dead in their car by a Palestinian gunman as they sat in traffic in the town of Huwara.

The recent attack — and the tragedies of Jewish history — permeated the ceremony, even as friends and family sang and danced. Rabbi Doron Perez asked the crowd to remember the brothers before reciting the blessings under the huppah.

The parents and siblings of Hallel Yaniv, 21, and Yagel Yaniv, 19, mourn during their funeral at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, February 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

As he emceed the ceremony, the bride’s younger brother Akiva searched the crowd for his best friend, who had flown in from the US to be at the wedding. He assumed that Elan Ganeles, who had grown up with the Rocklands in West Hartford, was dealing with a flat tire or some other inconvenience.

“If something mattered, he would be the first one there,” Akiva said. “So when I did not see him present during the huppah, I got a little concerned.”

The exuberant ceremony continued, but, in the tradition of Jewish weddings, it hit another solemn note as it reached its conclusion. Perez placed ashes on the groom’s forehead, symbolizing the destroyed Temples in Jerusalem. The glass Lewis smashed with his foot, before the crowd surged to congratulate the newlyweds, served the same purpose.

As the wedding moved on to the raucous feast, and guests prepared to welcome the new couple on the dance floor, tragic news reached the hall: Ganeles, 26, had been shot dead by Palestinian gunmen while driving to Maayan’s wedding through the Jordan Valley.

Elan Ganeles (C), Akiva Rockland (R) and a friend on a hiking trip (courtesy)

Word of the attack reached Maayan’s uncle while the bride and groom were outside taking pictures. He gathered the family and told them that they had to let her fully enjoy the next few hours.

“You have to put on a face that everything is okay,” he told them. “You cannot let Maayan know that this happened. She will find out after. Do not let her know at any cost.”

Maayan’s mother left the dance floor several times to sit down. “I thought she had a headache or something, or was just overwhelmed by the excitement of it,” Rockland recounted.

The extended family made sure Maayan’s mother was able to continue participating in the festivities.

“I didn’t suspect a thing,” said the bride. “And they were so strong for us.”

People attend the funeral of Elan Ganeles, who was killed in a terror shooting attack in the West Bank, in Ra’anana, on March 1, 2023 (Flash90)

The bride’s family encouraged her to avoid her phone until the following morning, urging her to be in the moment and answer the hundreds of congratulatory messages later.

But Rockland wanted to confirm the family’s plans for the following day. When she turned on her phone, she saw a message about the tragedy in a WhatsApp group from back home.

“I just feel shattered and broken,” she said. “Elan was like a brother to me, and it’s incomprehensible, literally unbelievable. My brain cannot comprehend that he was on his way to bring joy to me and my family, my wedding, and he didn’t make it there.”

Ganeles was laid to rest in a Ra’anana cemetery on Wednesday, with thousands in attendance.

The last time Rockland met him was in December, when she flew to the US to see her family. She stayed for a few days at her brother’s apartment in New York City, which he shared with Ganeles.

“I remember asking him, are you coming to my wedding?” she said. “And he said of course… We spoke in person the last time about coming to my wedding.”

Elan Ganeles (second from left) at the wedding of Akiva Garfield (courtesy)

Looking back at her lifelong relationship with Ganeles, Maayan said he was “really part of the Rockland family.”

“He genuinely cared about every person that was around him,” she said of the young man who had flown to Israel to attend her wedding. “To take the time to get to know them, and speak to them, and remember things about their life and follow up with them.”

Rockland’s mother told her Wednesday that it was no coincidence that the lives of Maayan and Elan will be forever intertwined in happiness and sorrow.

“I can’t compare myself to Elan,” Rockland insisted. “Elan is incredible, he’s such a role model to me. But something we definitely shared deeply was our love for Israel.”

“We are commanded to remember, and we will remember Elan,” she said. “We’re never going to forget him, and we’re never going to forget the people who did this to him either.”

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