A car accident involving five vehicles in Lawrence, New York, on the first day of Chol Hamoed left a chasan and kallah dead, and the Jewish world in mourning. Yisroel Levin and Elisheva Kaplan were engaged only a week before the crash, adding to the horror.
Yisroel was the son of Rabbi Shaya and Leba Levin of Flatbush, and Elisheva was the daughter of Chazan Joel and Leah Kaplan of Far Rockaway. The levayah for both victims was held in Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway. Yisroel was buried in Eretz Yisrael; Elisheva was buried on Long Island.
Two of the drivers involved in the crash were subsequently arrested on DWI charges for both drugs and alcohol.
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky attended the levayah. His reflection on this heartbreaking tragedy and levayah follows.
Like most of this Chol Hamoed here in the Northeast, the morning was gray, cold, wet and dreary.
Rushing out of the house, I got into the car, hoping that I wouldn’t be late for shul. Turning on the radio I heard the announcer begin the news headline recap a few minutes before the hour, so I knew that I would make it in time for brachos and surely the first Kaddish.
“Coming up in the next hour,” the announcer intoned, followed by a few bars of music that are meant to keep you tuned in, lest you miss something important. At the rate this was going, I’d make it to shul before the real news began.
But less than 30 seconds later my adrenaline started to flow. One of the sound bites wasn’t about the Middle East, Europe, the Chinese trade war or even the latest presidential tweet. This one was local—very local, less than a mile away—and it hit home. Hardly anything that happens in the Five Towns is ever mentioned on WCBS Newsradio 880, but there it was. Sandwiched in between a political tidbit and yet another anti-gun march that was scheduled to take place somewhere in Manhattan, “A fiery crash involving five vehicles in Lawrence leaves two people dead. Details in the next segment.”
By the time the radio chimed, indicating that the hourly prattle was about to begin, I was already bounding up the stairs of the shul. Bumping into the rav, I asked him if he’d heard about a crash that had occurred the night before. He hadn’t, but I mumbled under my breath, “Eppes shpirt mir nisht gut—I just don’t have a good feeling about this.”
I came home and heard nothing about the crash and felt better.
The morning came and went. Baruch Hashem, my wife and I are already at the stage when Chol Hamoed trips are no longer our responsibility, so I was able to stay home and work on a shiur I’d be giving on the Second Days of Yom Tov.
It was early afternoon when my phone rang. A talmid of mine was calling to tell me that his good friend Yisroel Levin and his kallah hadn’t returned home the previous night, and every organization imaginable was looking for them. As I know a few people in the police department, he suggested that perhaps I could make some phone calls to find out what was going on.
Of course, it wasn’t my place to mix in without being asked by the family, and there were undoubtedly people with more experience who were involved. But after a single phone call to one of my contacts my heart was racing. “Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender of Achiezer is working with us,” I was told, “and we don’t have anything good to report.”
I lamely replied that if there was anything humanly possible to be done, Boruch Ber would be doing it. I certainly had nothing to add. But at that moment, I felt as if I was already grasping at straws.
I also realized that almost every one of my unmarried and quite a few of my married children were connected to the two missing people, whether from camp, school or from the neighborhood. A pall fell over our home when the news was made official only an hour or so later.
Wherever you went you saw grim faces as people tried to suppress their mourning, in a community already shattered by the sudden passing of a three-and-a-half-month-old grandchild of two pillars of the community on the first night of Yom Tov.
As I left for the levayah with my wife and unmarried sons, I recalled how joyful Chazan Kaplan had been, when we happened to meet on Erev Yom Tov, when he told me that his daughter had recently gotten engaged. Soon I would be sitting and listening to him be maspid that very kallah, eternally bound to her chasan, whose simchas hachayim was only paralleled by hers, as speaker after speaker affirmed.
The hespeidim were simply heartbreaking. My fingers have no strength to type the words of a father who was looking forward to walking his cherished daughter to the chuppah this summer. Nor can I type the utterances of a parent burying his second son and saying to the Ribbono Shel Olam, “I have returned the matzah of the afikoman that you entrusted to me as pure and chametz-free as when I received it.” In a voice filled with emotion, he pleaded for shidduchim, refuos and yeshuos for klal Yisrael: “Ribbono Shel Olam, I want a present in return.”
It is just too painful to recount all the words that were spoken. Instead, I will share some indelible impressions that will forever remain with me.