They Died Too Young But Their Spirits Live

The picture of a youthful, healthy, energetic American man with a dark trim beard sent chills up my spine. Taylor Force, a 29-year-old American visiting Israel, was stabbed to death in Jaffa on March 8 amidst a wave of three separate terror attacks around Israel that day in which 13 others were wounded. Every precious life destroyed by terrorism is horrific--the lives lost; the families broken; the dreams shattered. Sadly, Taylor Force is now part of the litany of senseless losses to such brutal violence.

When I learned about Taylor's murder and saw his picture, I couldn't help but think of another young American man with a dark trim beard, my late friend Matthew Eisenfeld. He and his girlfriend Sara Duker were riding the Number 18 bus in Jerusalem on February 25, 1996 when a suicide bomber blew up the bus and killed Matt and Sara and 24 other people.

From everything I have read about Taylor Force, he was the the best of his generation. A US Army veteran who served in front-line combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was a 29-year-old student at Vanderbilt University's Owen School of Management. He was visiting Israel with a group of fellow graduate students and faculty as part of their studies in global entrepreneurship. He and his peers were exchanging ideas and building bridges across cultures. All of Taylor's great achievements in his curtailed life augment the void that will never be filled.

Taylor Force's murder came twenty years after the murder of Matt and Sara. Like Taylor, they were slain in the fullness of their vigor in their mid-twenties with boundless opportunities awaiting them. Matt, a graduate of Yale, was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary where we were classmates. He and our class spent the 1995-96 school year in Jerusalem as part of our studies. Sara, a graduate of Barnard College, was pursuing a career in environmental science. They were both deeply reflective and spiritual and were gifted writers. They left behind a a treasure trove of journal entries, sermons, and scholarly essays that provide windows into their souls.

In 1997, one year after their death, JTS dedicated a Beit Midrash (study hall) in memory of Matt and Sara. In conjunction with that ceremony, I compiled a scrapbook of many of their writings. The selections included a cross-section of their work that probe the depths of the meaning of life with special focus on Jewish spirituality. Since 1997, this collection, the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash Memorial Volume, has been on display in the JTS Beit Midrash.

As the twentieth anniversary of their death approached, I revisited the writing of Matt and Sara. I am amazed at how current they seem. Their scholarly writings continue to illuminate sacred texts. Their observations of Jewish and Israeli life in the mid-1990s continue to hit home because Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities continue to grapple with similar issues of identity and inter-communal relationships. A generation has passed since Matt and Sara died, yet they still have much to teach us. For these reasons, I edited and published Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker. The title comes from The Song of Songs 1:2, "Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth/For your love is more delightful than wine," a verse Matt discusses in the final paper he wrote that is included in the collection.

Mike Kelly, author of the acclaimed book The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, a detailed chronicle of the attack that killed Matt and Sara and their families' quest for justice, writes in his foreword to Love Finer Than Wine that no one remembers who the suicide bomber was, but everyone remembers Matt and Sara.

"Matt and Sara are not frozen in time. They still live," he writes. They live through their writings, through scholarships named in their memory and through many of their friends' children who were named in memory of Matt and Sara. These memorials do not erase the pain or the void of their absence. They are reminders, though, that their spirit lives on.

I grieve for the family and friends of Taylor Force who are experiencing unthinkable trauma now. I hope that over time they will draw a measure of comfort from remembering all of his fine qualities that have been noted in the press: his intellect, his patriotism, his warmth. I pray that a generation from now those who knew Taylor Force will still feel his presence and draw inspiration from his example. His life was too short, but it was a life well lived.