These Normal Stories
Expanded Stories, Linked from This Normal Life

Sunday, September 15, 2002  

Marla Bennett was our cousin. She was killed July 31, 2002 in the homicide bombing attack at Hebrew University. I wrote the following memorial to Marla in the days following her murder.

A Few Words About Our Cousin Marla
Our cousin Marla came into our lives only two years ago when she arrived in Israel to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. But as soon as we found each other, she became a close part of our family in Jerusalem. We both had very little family here, and so finding each other was that much more important. Marla spent countless Shabbatot with us, many chagim, and time at shul as a member of Kehillat Yedidya.

It seems that whenever someone leaves us in such a sudden and harsh way, everyone says how special and unique that person was. In Marla’s case, this was really true. She was a remarkable human being – a wonderful, giving, caring, playful woman with a deep love of deep life – and her death is a tragic loss to the entire Jewish people. She was always up, always full of energy. Her smile could melt any sadness. It is not for nothing that her email address was

She was smart, tolerant, committed to tradition, and embodied the very things the Jewish world and the world as a whole need more of. As a teacher, she would have inspired so many Jewish children towards those values. Her commitment to tzedakah and helping people were not just words, but really were an integral part of who she was.

Marla had a particularly strong connection with our children who loved her deeply. When the parents needed to nap on Shabbat, it was Marla who would hang out all afternoon and play games with them – cards with our 11-year-old Amir, Monopoly with our 9-year-old Merav, or endless rounds of hide and seek with our 4-year-old Aviv. She made a special effort to come to Merav’s violin concert; I think the first time she had been in an Israeli elementary school. I remember her sitting with us, the proud parents, just as proud of her 9-year-old cousin. Telling our children about her death was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do.

When we went on vacation this summer, we gave Marla the keys to our apartment and car. She was so excited to have a car to use for the month… or maybe it was the access to cable TV for a while! I came back after four weeks from my part of the vacation; Jody and the kids were to stay on in San Diego for another 3 weeks. Marla was flying to see them the very day she was murdered. Before I left, we joked that she and I would cross in the air – as I would be landing literally as she was taking off. Marla’s last email to Jody was - see you on Friday in San Diego. They met, instead, a few days later under entirely different and tragic circumstances.

In the weeks since Marla’s death, there have been many moving tributes distributed by email and posted throughout the Internet. What was it about Marla that has touched so many people in such a profound way? Certainly, she was an amazing person. But it’s more than that. I think that, in many ways, we are all Marla. We can see ourselves in Marla – in what we were, what we are, or what we might become. For Jody and I, the parallels are particularly striking. Our paths were the same, even though they were separated by some 17 years.

Marla, Jody and I all grew up in California and came from reform or unaffiliated backgrounds. Marla and Jody both came to Israel when they were 22. Each of us studied and became observant at Pardes. Jody & I met while studying together at Pardes in the early 1980s. Marla and her boyfriend Michael fell in love here in the 21st Century. Jody & I were married and spent several years in the States before making Aliyah. This could very likely have been the path for Marla and Michael as well.

Marla’s friend Shayna told Jody a story about one day in July, while we were on our vacation and Marla had use of our car. Shayna and Marla took the car and went to the pool in the Jerusalem Forest. They had a great time. Afterwards, they came back to our house because Marla needed to water the plants. That was the kind of person Marla was – she would never miss a day. While there, Marla took Shayna on a tour of all the photographs in our living room. She kvelled over the kids.

Marla looked at us and saw what her own life could become, and we looked at her and imagined anew the possibilities of life and what it would bring, as she was starting out on her path. Would she and Michael truly marry? Would they have children? How many? Where would they live? What would they do? Would they be happy? In what ways would they change the world? In what ways have they already changed it?

When we look at Marla’s destiny now, we can also imagine that it could have been any one of us at Hebrew University that day. That our life, so fresh with promise at age 24, could have been cut down mercilessly and everything that has unfolded since would never have come to be. Marla touched all of us because she was all of us, either now or at one time.

When a tragedy such as this befalls us, it puts into perspective our relationship as individuals vs. the national history of the Jewish people. Too often, in the face of difficult times such as those we are experiencing now in Israel, we tend to bury our heads, hoping it will pass over us and our immediate family will get through this on the way to “better” times. But when someone in your family is targeted because she is a Jew, you instantly are thrust into part of the collective Jewish narrative. Your story of tragedy - and also in entirely different circumstances a story of joy or success - becomes part and parcel of the Jewish totality. You can no longer see yourself as just individuals. In this way Marla is not alone, none of us are alone. Our struggle is collective.

Indeed, Marla wrote these very words in May in a column she contributed to a San Diego newspaper that has now been widely circulated online. I’ll repeat the critical lines here: “My friends and family in San Diego are right when they call and ask me to come home - it is dangerous here," she wrote. "I appreciate their concern. But there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now. I have a front-row seat for the history of the Jewish people. I am a part of the struggle for Israel's survival."

Marla dared to express the feelings we are sometimes afraid to say out loud. That this place we live in IS dangerous…but that it’s worth it. That life is more than just a new SUV, a movie theater with stadium seating and 400 channels of digital cable. It is that meaning is critical. That some things are worth fighting for.

And yet, just three months before those words were published, in February, when she was in the States doing her student teaching, she emailed Jody asking for some words of strength and encouragement to come back. She was worried. Scared. Was this the right thing to do? And we gave her the words she was seeking. Now it is Marla, through her words and her actions, who is giving strength and encouragement to all of us to continue in the struggle, to not give up, to not run away to a place that we perceive to be somehow “safer.” But rather to remain part of community – this community – and participate fully in the unfolding national Jewish drama.

Marla had her eyes wide open. She knew why she was here. And her actions were contagious. Debbie Jacobson who knew Marla from the Educator’s Program, sent out an email to the Pardes community where she related speaking with Marla’s mother Linda after the funeral in San Diego. “Go back to Israel next year, don’t even think about not going back,” Linda told Debbie. “Marla would have wanted you to go back. It would be a waste of Marla’s life and everything she stood for if you don’t go back”. That a mother while still in the throes of mourning over the loss of her precious daughter could say such a remarkable thing is a testament to the way Marla has already changed the world.

I have tried to find words of comfort for my children. My message to them when I spoke to them over the phone in San Diego after the hearing the tragic news was that the best way to preserve Marla’s memory is to use who she was and what made her special to either change yourselves or change the world. To make yourself a better person – more like Marla – or to help make the world a safer, more giving, more loving place.

To this, I would add that we must do it together, as a community, following in the path that Marla was on – the path that we have all been on, or that we are on now, or that we will be on in the future.

Links to Marla in the News

Marla's Family Reflects as Yom Kippur Arrives
Marla's Funeral in San Diego
More on Marla's Funeral
Marla's Funeral Coverage on Channel 10 San Diego
Funeral Coverage from Channel 8 San Diego
Slide Show on Marla from Channel 7 San Diego
Jerusalem: There's Nowhere Else I'd Rather Be (By Marla Bennett)
Bennett Family Criticizes White House, State Department

Selected Articles

Bomb Victim Knew Dangers, Chose to Stay
San Diego native's family, friends agonize over death
By Jeff McDonald

August 2, 2002

Fear and anguish mounted by the minute. Michael Bennett couldn't focus on work. It was late afternoon Wednesday in Jerusalem and the phone call from his daughter was long overdue.

Minutes turned to hours. Frantic with worry, the insurance company executive left his office and headed home to Del Cerro, where his wife tried to assure him that everything was all right, that Marla would call soon, like she did 10 or 15 minutes after every bombing in Israel.

This time, Marla Bennett never phoned home. The 24-year-old graduate of Patrick Henry High School was among five Americans killed in a lunchtime explosion two days ago in a cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The death has devastated thousands of people, hitting the local Jewish community especially hard and delivering the ugly byproduct of a faraway war directly to San Diego.

"This was a really loved girl," said Norman Greene, a family friend who was asked to speak to reporters yesterday on behalf of the Bennetts. "She was one of us. She could have been anyone's child."

A native San Diegan whose family has deep roots in the city, Marla Bennett was acutely aware of the danger she faced living in Jerusalem. Time and again, however, she refused the pleas of her parents and friends, and chose to remain in Israel.

"My friends and family in San Diego are right when they call and ask me to come home – it is dangerous here," she wrote in a column published in May in the San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage.

"I appreciate their concern. But there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now," she wrote. "I have a front-row seat for the history of the Jewish people. I am a part of the struggle for Israel's survival."

A graduate student in Judaic studies, Bennett was at the university Wednesday for a final exam. She would have arrived in San Diego today for a monthlong family visit and the wedding of some close friends. Instead, her remains are expected Sunday at Lindbergh Field, and a funeral has been arranged for the following day.

Friends described the brown-eyed honors student with equal measures of pride and affection. Bennett was extremely organized, and kept lists of daily responsibilities along with names and numbers of people she wanted to check in with.

She was a constant volunteer in her community, be it San Diego, Jerusalem or Berkeley, where she received a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California before moving to Israel almost two years ago, just about the time the latest wave of violence began.

After earning her graduate degree, Bennett had indefinite plans to return to San Diego and work as a teacher or administrator in a local Jewish school.

"She was incredibly effervescent," said Hyim Brandes, who studied alongside Bennett in Israel's capital city before returning to Los Angeles this spring. It was Brandes' wedding that Bennett had planned to attend.

"She exuded life and happiness and was always outgoing. I can't pinpoint what exactly it was about her, but she was loved by more people than anyone I know."

Todd Kierman called her a hero who was dedicated to the cause of Jewish education.

"She wouldn't let anything or anyone stand in the way of her desire to help her people," said Kierman, a San Diego telecommunications manager who dated Bennett before she left for Jerusalem.

"She was very well aware that she could get that education in the United States," Kierman said. "But the best place for her, the most meaningful, was Israel. That couldn't be replaced in any way."

Eileen Shelden knew Marla in high school, but it was during their junior year abroad in Israel that the young women forged their friendship.

"We danced, we chatted, we hung out, we celebrated, we cried, we laughed," said Shelden, now pursuing a master's degree at Boston University. "There was a solid group of us that really formed this bond."

Wide awake in the middle of the night just last week, Shelden picked up the phone and dialed her friend in Jerusalem.

"I realized it was 10:30 in the morning in Israel," she said. "We talked for 45 minutes until my phone card ran out. We said our 'I love you's' and hung up the phone.

"I'm so glad I got that."

Bennett displayed an interest in politics early. She served three years on the student council at Patrick Henry High, and was elected class secretary her senior year. She enrolled in a college-level political science course while still in high school.

"She was a fine student, very interested in issues like Israel," said Carl Luna, a Mesa College professor who taught the Patrick Henry honors class.

"She was interested in her Jewish heritage, the history and politics of the Middle East," he said. "It's a terrible thing for something like this to come up and claim her."

Bennett also was a 10th-grade cheerleader, a member of her school's Academic Decathlon team and a volunteer with Interact, a Rotary Club youth leadership program.

"Marla was just a really sweet, kind kid that wanted to give all the time," said Mike DeRisi, one of her advisers at Patrick Henry. "That's what angers me the most. This is a kid that would have made a difference in the world."

Standing outside the Del Cerro home where Bennett grew up, where her big sister's name is carved into the sidewalk and an American flag is taped to a front window, Greene described an excruciating day Wednesday for the bombing victim's family and friends.

At first, Linda Bennett figured that her daughter had not called because she was taking a final exam. But how long could the test take? Michael Bennett arrived home at midmorning, and they started working the phones.

They reached some of Marla's friends at Hebrew University who told them they thought she was safe, that she might have been injured but survived the explosion.

Someone from the State Department called about 2:30, however, asking for dental records, and the parents' deepest fears began taking hold. FBI agents picked up dental X-rays and sent them to Israel.

Hours passed with no word from the government.

Michael and Linda Bennett, whose house was filling with dozens of worried friends and relatives, tapped their friends at the Jewish Press-Heritage, who were able to enlist the Jerusalem mayor in a search for details about their daughter.

At 10:30 that night, the Bennett family received confirmation that Marla had been killed. "There was pandemonium in the house," Greene said. "There must have been 50 people in the house, hoping against hope that she had survived."

Greene, who is co-publisher of the Jewish Press-Heritage, praised the Israeli government for its assistance in finding information about victims. But he was disturbed at the response from his own government.

The U.S. Embassy in Israel called early yesterday to ask the Bennetts what they wanted done with Marla's remains. "There was no other official word from the State Department," Greene said. "It was a very sloppy job, and I told them so."

Bennett is survived by her parents and an older sister, Lisa. Her boyfriend, Michael Simon of Long Beach, will bring her body back to San Diego this weekend. Services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at the Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Carlos.

The Bennetts remain inside their home, trying to somehow cope with the loss of their daughter while friends and loved ones stop by and offer what support they can. None would speak to reporters yesterday.

"What can you say about a bomb that's placed in a room full of children?" Greene said. "Yes, there's anger. But right now there are more tears."

The World is Torn
By Amanda Borschel
Jerusalem Post
Aug. 2, 2002

Dozens of students gathered at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies Thursday, sharing their grief over the loss of two fellow students in Wednesday's terrorist attack at the Hebrew University.

Benjamin Thomas Blutstein of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 25, and Marla Ann Bennett of San Diego, California, 24, were among the five American citizens killed in the cafeteria bombing. A third Pardes student, Jamie Harris-Gershon, is seriously wounded.

The bodies of Blutstein and Bennet were to be sent back to the US Thursday night.

"When you teach Torah," said Pardes director Rabbi Danny Landes, "those you teach Torah to are considered as your children. In no way detracting from those sitting in San Diego and Harrisburg, we are also in mourning; we are related... The world is torn. The world is torn."

The trio had just completed their last day in the university's Jerusalem Ulpan and were eating lunch before taking a placement exam for the next session. Blutstein and Bennett were planning to fly to the US to visit family within the next few days.

Blutstein and Bennett had both spent two years each at Pardes and were enrolled in a joint Pardes and Hebrew University program geared towards creating a new generation of Jewish educators.

"We've lost them, but all their potential students have lost so much," said Tania Hershman, a student at Pardes.

Ben Blutstein was a graduate of Dickinson College with a BA in Judaic Studies. He was a serious scholar, but also knew how to explore the lighter side of life. Unlike most Orthodox Jews, Blutstein was found in the hottest clubs around the country, first as DJ Ultrasound, and later as DJ Benny-B.

His friends remember him as a warm, funny individual with a gruff exterior but a heart of gold. "In a learning situation he could be really rough and tough, always striving for truth. He would get mad when he thought people weren't being true to the text. But in the spring, when his father and little sister came to visit, he was so gentle with her; it was amazing to see this person who could be so passionate be so gentle," said Yisrael Campbell-Hochstein, also a master's student and a study-partner of Blutstein's.

"He had a real sense of fun," said Saskia Swenson, now entering her third year at Pardes. Blutstein and Swenson headed up the house band, Women, Children, and Minors. "He was such an alive person."

Marla Bennett was a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, with a BA in Political Science and an English minor. Friends spoke about her as a beautiful young woman with quiet grace, a calming presence.
"She was a real jewel, very beloved. You couldn't be in her presence and not smile with her," said Landes.

Friends called her a true listener, quietly offering needed support. All spoke about her magical smile which would crinkle her nose.

Responding to the concern of friends and family abroad, Bennett wrote in a column for her hometown paper, the San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage: "I have a front-row seat for the history of the Jewish people. I am a part of the struggle for Israel's survival."

"She brought light into a room; something about her just glowed so warmly. She drew you into her warmth," said Hershman.

Blutstein and Bennett are both being buried in the US.

"Ben and Marla were each in their own very different ways very life affirming people," said Landes. "Both were ready to revolutionize Jewish education. They were going to make it fun and exciting, so that going to class would be special."

Jamie Harris-Gershon, also a student at Pardes, is in intensive care at Hadassah-University Hospital, Mount Scopus, after undergoing an operation to remove shrapnel that was embedded in her from her legs up to her abdomen. Doctors estimate she will be released within two weeks.

posted by Brian | 1:32 AM
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