Everyone had a reason — a deeply personal reason — to be there.
Doris Montrose’s father nearly died in Auschwitz. Laurence Hermon, a Parisian and a Jew, awaited the response from the French consul general. Diana Tehrani, 21, paled at the thought of the three weeks of torture — three weeks, she repeated — endured by man just two years her senior.
Montrose, Hermon, Tehrani and about 35 others gathered at noon Tuesday on the plaza of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, to honor the memory of Ilan Halimi, a young Jew left for dead, bound and naked, beside railroad tracks near Paris on Feb. 13 by a multiethnic gang known as the Barbarians.
The gang had kidnapped Halimi, a 23-year-old cellphone salesman, and demanded ransom from his family. They targeted Halimi, French authorities said, because he was Jewish and the gang thought Jews were rich.
Halimi’s captors beat, burned, stabbed and poured toxic fluid on him, authorities said.
For those who gathered at Hillel, a Jewish center on Hilgard Avenue near the campus, Halimi’s death brought a familiar sting, a reminder of past injustices to their families or other Jews. But even as they paid homage to a life lost, they also pledged a commitment to a better life for those who remain.
Speakers made brief remarks — some prepared, some impromptu — but their voices came together to recite Scripture.
At a wooden lectern, above the din of passing buses, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller began singing Psalm 121 in Hebrew:
I lift my up my eyes to the hills — where does my help come from?
Soon others joined him.
My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and Earth. He will not let your foot slip. He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep …. The Lord will keep you from all harm. He will watch over your life.
The rabbi selected the prayer because it was recited at Halimi’s memorial in France.
Philippe Larrieu, the French consul general in Los Angeles, then spoke of fraternity and tolerance.
“Anti-Semitism is the negation” of the values of the French republic, Larrieu said. The same values “to which the French Jewish community contributed so much since the early days of the republic.”
Hermon listened, looking like the Parisian she is in her oversized black sunglasses and knee-length tan trench coat. During World War II, her Romanian parents fled to Palestine, now Israel, before they moved on to France in 1953.
She said although she was horrified by Halimi’s murder, relief washed over her upon also hearing of the French government’s response. It labeled the killing a hate crime.
“Americans think Paris is glamorous, gay Paris. Actually it’s far from that,” she said, pointing to the recent racial riots as proof of unrest.
A few feet away, Montrose stood, stone-faced, as history professor David N. Myers urged Jews not to be complacent, or as he put it, not to don “the cloak of victimization.” Instead, “our task is to fight this evil.”
Montrose, of Woodland Hills, said she wasn’t at all surprised when she heard of Halimi’s death, adding that except for her father and an uncle, her family perished in the Holocaust.
Throughout history, she said, Jews have often served as a canary in a mineshaft — victims of atrocities that extended to others. “It’ll happen again in a few weeks, and then a few weeks after that, and again and again,” she said.
It angered her that only a handful of students came to pay their respects. From where she stood, she could see into Hillel’s coffeehouse, where several students typed away on their laptop computers. Their curiosity warranted a sideways glance every few minutes, but none rose and walked the 30 feet to the plaza.
Tehrani, however, was a student who did care. The third-year biology major didn’t prepare a speech; she had no notes.
As she stood at the microphone, her voice and body wavering slightly, she simply told the small crowd how she felt: sad, stunned, grateful for her own peaceful life as young Jew living in the United States.
She has never experienced anti-Semitism, she said, afterward, but recalls her parents’ fear of discrimination. When she was in first grade, her mother and father, Iranian immigrants, told her not to wear her Star of David gold necklace to school. The gift from her grandmother could cause children to treat her differently, they said.
All grown up, Tehrani said she now wears her necklace whenever she wants — without fear. She joined in with the crowd when the rabbi led Psalm 23:
Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Moments later, Seidler-Feller spoke of acceptance and its vital role in a diverse world.
“We are children of one parent, but we need to force people to recognize that we are both the same and different,” he said, his voice rising as he slammed his fist onto the lectern. “That’s the gift of God to all of us.”
With the lighting of a white candle, it was time for the Kaddish, a traditional Hebrew prayer sung during times of mourning. It’s the Jews’ way of affirming their faith, said Eric Livak-Dahl, a UCLA sophomore who attended the memorial. Despite death and devastation, “God is still here.”
When reading the psalms, many in the crowd closely followed their copies of the Hebrew texts. But the words of the Kaddish they knew by heart.
Magnified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which God created and governs by divine will.
Some closed their eyes, others rocked back and forth. For the first time in half an hour, joy pulsed through the group as they sang.
May great peace emanate from Heaven with good life for us and for all Israel…. May the One who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, Amen.
by Kelly-Anne Suarez