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July 20th, 2011

Brad Lander’s Shiva Visit to Leiby Kletsky’s Family

Earlier this week City Councilmember Brad Lander visited the family of Leiby Kletsky, the 8-year-old Borough Park boy who was brutally murdered last week. He wrote about his experience with the family and it is on his website today. I was in Europe during this terrible tragedy and I knew nothing about it until I got back to New York on Sunday night. I was moved by Lander’s reflections on his visit with the family and am reprinting it here for those who haven’t had a chance to read it.

No words can ease or describe the grief, or heal the wounds, but — like so many people I’ve talked to — I’ve been thinking about it constantly for the past week, and wanted at least to write down some of what I’ve been feeling.

We were all heartbroken by the tragedy — especially those with close ties to the Borough Park and Kensington communities, or the Orthodox Jewish community, or those of us with young kids … but really all of us, beyond Brooklyn, beyond New York, beyond the Jewish community, beyond parents.  The killing reminded us that despite everything we do to keep our kids and each other safe, there are spaces of senseless terror, of incomprehensible evil.  That the things that are absolutely most dear and precious to us can be taken away in a heartbeat, for no reason at all.

At the shiva, after talking to his parents, I met one of Leiby’s neighbors, who talked to me about how Leiby would play ball with the little kids in his building, about how rare it is for an 8-year-old to play with 4-year-olds, about how he had a heart of gold, living up to his name (Leiby is from the Hebrew lev, for heart).

While neither words nor actions feel meaningful in the face of the tragedy, the response of the Orthodox Jewish community has been remarkable.  I’ve been deeply impressed over the past two years with the extraordinary voluntary (chesed) organizations and efforts in the community, for so many causes — taking care of sick families, helping kids go to summer camp, providing social and health and mental health services, and so many others.  The past week showed that like no other.

The Shomrim, Hatzoloh, and Misaskim organizations mobilized over 2,000 people to look for Leiby when he went missing, in partnership with the NYPD (and I thought that the 66th Precinct did a very good job as well, responding rapidly and seriously, and in partnership with the community).  Individuals, shuls, families, groups, all put down what they were doing to help.  And when he was found, they all put down what they were doing to grieve together, to show the family that they are not alone, that Leiby has become all of our child.

And, of course, as difficult as it is to grapple with, Levi Aron, the deranged murderer, is part of the story that we have to confront as well.  He committed a monstrous, evil act, and must face the consequences as part of our enactment of justice.  But we can’t simply pretend that he is from some other planet.  His family is also from our community, also heartbroken beyond words, also wrecked by senseless violence, also longing for it to be two weeks ago somehow, or for a world beyond this pain and violence, or for some small glimmer of hope for something better.

So, despite the impossibility of any good answers, the questions remain.  I don’t know how or if we could make sense of it, but I do believe that we have a responsibility to figure out what we can do to make Leiby’s memory be for a blessing.

I’ve been hugging my kids tightly all week, trying to hide from them the fact that I’ve sometimes been on the verge of tears, not wanting to let them go.  But, of course, we have to.  They have to grow up in this same world, with terror and evil that we can’t always keep them safe from, sometimes can’t even explain to them.  And, of course, also with the possibilities for great good shown by the chesed organizations and all the acts of solidarity and love.

One good resource for talking to kids about tragedy and grief — this one, but also the inevitable if thankfully less impossibly painful other events that will take place in their futures — is this guide from Ohel, an Orthodox Jewish organization.  I encourage parents to take a look, and use it to talk with your kids.

I’ve also been in numerous conversations with parents, reflecting on what we let our kids do, where we let them go, and when.

Let me be clear: there is no way that Leiby or the Kletsky’s could have prevented this senseless act.  They had rehearsed the route with him, walked it with him, made sure he knew people and businesses along the few short blocks.  This was a random and incomprehensible act of terror, something that could happen to any of us, and that is what terrifies us.

But still, we can’t help thinking about what we can do, in our families & our communities, to make our kids safer.

If you haven’t made sure to talk to your kids about what they can do to be safe when they are out in the community, it is always a good time to do so.  My office put together this flyer on street safety for kids, for some forums we did with the NYPD and schools earlier this year.  They don’t guarantee anything, but they can help.

At the shiva, Leiby’s father and grandmother were talking to me about other things we could do to keep kids safer in the future — more security cameras, more innovative use of mobile technology.  They know it won’t bring Leiby back, but that perhaps their indescribable pain could help keep other kids safe in the future.  I was struck by their courage, and their commitment to find some good out of their tragic loss.  After we are done mourning, we should talk more about this, about what we can do that recognizes our kids grow up, and become independent, but also helps keep them as safe as we reasonably can.

In the days after 9/11, at another moment of indescribable grief in response to senseless terror, our city had a remarkable quality to it.  We were scared and angry.  But we also found a spirit of community that I had not seen before.  For a few weeks, we really saw that we had a shared fate, that we are in this together.  We did not just want revenge, or even only want justice (though we certainly did want it).

We also wanted to provide comfort together, at the scale we had felt pain and loss together.  We wanted to build a city and a world where that kind of pain do not exist.  That is impossible, sadly, but our heartfelt desire brought us together across so many lines, and made us dream about it, and try to do a few things to get us closer.

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this September, I’ll be carrying Leiby’s memory with me.  I hope that we will not stop at celebrating the killing of Osama Bin Laden, or pushing for just punishment for Levi Aron, though justice is certainly required.

I hope we can also build upon that sense of shared fate, the belief that Leiby was all our child, that we are all New Yorkers now as we were on 9-11-01, that we should dream and work together for a world where this kind of pain is not possible, through small steps and large, and keep doing what we can for a world where healing is bigger than killing.

In the meantime, I’ll keep giving my kids a couple of extra-tight hugs every day, and trying to remember to be thankful for every blessed moment.

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