The men gathered their children and hurried across San Jose Boulevard. One man covered his children in light-reflective safety vests. His beard reached down to his tie, his sons’ tufts of hair tucked behind their ears.
Jewish law tells men not to shave the side of their heads, just like it tells them that on certain days not to push the button that would activate a walking signal across eight lanes of speeding cars. Esther Ohayon died making the same trek.
On Thursday morning, men chanted in Hebrew along with the rabbi at the Orthodox synagogue for Sukkot, one of the happiest festivals of the year, a weeklong celebration of God feeding and caring the Jews while they wandered the desert.
After prayers and songs, Etz Chaim Rabbi Yaakov Fisch spoke about the holiday. We must be glad, he said, even when rejoicing is hard. Learn from what happened. Learn from Esther’s life. Use your time wisely. Study the Torah.
“If you remember that life is fragile,” he said, “you’ll remember that life is precious.”
The day before, the Jewish families who live across the street began building sukkahs, the huts that symbolize the temporary homes of the Jews in the desert thousands of years ago. The sukkahs are built with bamboo and wood. Families eat meals inside the hut for a week, unless it rains.
Like a sukkah, Esther offered protection, wrote the head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School where she worked.
Though Esther attended the Hasidic Chabad, she would walk her 16-year-old daughter across San Jose to the Orthodox Etz Chaim, past four lanes of zooming cars, stop in the median, breathe, and then past four more lanes.
Orthodox Jews, who closely adhere to Jewish law, generally live close together and close to their synagogue so they can walk on the Sabbath.
In Jacksonville, the Orthodox synagogue was established in 1901 in Springfield, then it moved to Riverside, then University Boulevard. Now the synagogues — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform — are strung along San Jose Boulevard.
The Ohayons were well connected to the Jewish community. Esther worked at the Jacksonville Jewish Center — the Conservative synagogue — as a preschool teacher, and her daughter, Orly, had graduated from the center’s elementary school. Esther mostly attended Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov’s Chabad, the Hasidic Orthodox center on Haley Road, while Orly mostly attended Etz Chaim, the Orthodox synagogue.
Esther had lost her husband long ago to lung cancer after he spent years breathing chemicals at the Shipyards. Orly was about 3 years old by Kahanov’s memory. Esther wouldn’t let Orly cross the street alone. Not when she was 3. Not when she was 12 and had become a bat mitzvah, a daughter of the law.
Not when she was 16 and became the vice president of Etz Chaim’s youth program. Not on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, on a Sabbath night in the Hebrew year 5774, on Sept. 13.
For whatever reason, Esther Ohayon and her daughter, Orly, were running late to service that Friday night. Yom Kippur is the day when the fate for the new year in the Hebrew calendar is sealed, when Jews can be made clean again. It’s even holier when it begins on a Friday night, the Sabbath.
The law says Jews cannot work after the sun sets on Friday.
God created the Earth in six days, the Torah says. On the seventh day, the Earth didn’t stop blossoming, but God rested. He didn’t add to his creation, and so Jews are told they cannot create energy. If a light is left on, it cannot be turned off. If a light is left off, it cannot be turned on.
Esther could not push the button that would’ve given her 49.5 seconds. Without pushing it, she would have had a minimum of about 11 seconds to cross eight lanes and a median at 7:30 on a Friday night in Mandarin.
A driver approached the intersection of Haley and San Jose. The 66-year-old man had about 20 traffic citations in Duval County alone. Also, Michael Fortunato had driven into and killed a 6-year-old girl a half-mile away a few years earlier.
Someone rushed into the temple screaming. Rabbi Fisch told youth Rabbi Shaya Hauptman to find out what happened.
Treated with Respect
By the time Hauptman and the synagogue president arrived at the police tape, Orly had been taken in an ambulance.
A white sheet covered the body of her mother.
Hauptman talked to police from the caution tape. The body is holy and needs to be treated with respect. No autopsies. Esther needed to be flown to Israel as soon as possible so she could be buried beside her husband.
Then someone told them Orly’s heart stopped beating in the ambulance.
Inside the temple, youth wept. Hauptman gathered them in a library.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. He urged them to sing Psalms, asking God to merit the good deeds in Orly’s favor.
They sang the first 22 Psalms together. Starting with the 23rd one, the one that in English says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me”; they split the remaining Psalms into groups. Over a few hours, they sang all 150.
About midnight, they left the temple and walked across San Jose to their homes.
Orly, Hauptman told his students during Yom Kippur’s service the next day, was alive.
She was stable in the intensive care unit at UF Health. Their prayers, Hauptman told them, had made a difference.
The dozen or so boys and girls, he later said, cried with relief, and Hauptman urged them to continue praying.
Hauptman sent a message on the youth group’s Facebook page, encouraging them to focus on study and good work so that God might heal Orly.
He didn’t mention Esther. He didn’t want the focus to be negative.
Soon after, a Facebook page sprouted for people to sing healing prayers. Within a week, it grew to 1,500 members.
A “Bike for Orly” fundraiser ride in Israel started. About 150 people in Jerusalem gathered at the Western Wall to pray. A concert scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Jerusalem has 130 people attending on Facebook.
A spreadsheet on Google Drive gathered the names of more than 315 people who promised to observe more laws because of her. Some people promised to read more Psalms. Some promised to attend services more often. Some promised to dress more modestly.
The people signing the document came from New York and Chicago, Minneapolis and Calgary, Houston and Seattle, Germany and Israel.
Lobbying for Safety
After Esther’s death, Fisch met with officials from the Florida Department of Transportation, and he plans to meet with them again when Sukkot, one of three mandated festivals, ends. During Sukkot and the Sabbath, he again cannot call or access email.
For years, Etz Chaim congregants have feared someone would get hurt crossing the street. They’ve asked for a pedestrian overpass or any way to add safety for walkers.
Fisch had emailed state Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, in mid-April asking to change the timer on lights to automatically give extra time to pedestrians on days of services.
On the north side of the road, there’s a sensor that detects when someone walks up to it, but for the Orthodox Jews who aren’t allowed to activate the sensor, it’s useless.
During Sukkot service, Fisch assured his congregants that he will be lobbying for their safety.
At the Chabad across the street, Joseph Glenn had recently moved to Jacksonville and began attending services. Before that, he hadn’t attended many services in South Florida where he had worked on transportation construction contracts. After Yom Kippur, he put together an action plan that he shared with the rabbis of Chabad, the Jacksonville Jewish Center and Etz Chaim.
He attached a flier about solar-powered speed limit signs that flashes drivers’ speeds and a flier about flashing LED beacons that alert drivers to pedestrian crossings.
Fisch spent the four days between the end of Yom Kippur and the beginning of Sukkot reminding people of reasons to celebrate.
“It’s definitely challenging to celebrate in times of grief,” he had said on Tuesday, reminding himself “how precious every day is and how much we have to be thankful for: for every day we have of life.”
Wednesday, the men put the finishing touches on their sukkahs.
At the Chabad, the sukkah remained unadorned. During the night service, men clapped and danced and sang in Hebrew. Most men wore black suits with black hats and black beards sometimes so long they pushed them out of the way and over their shoulders as they ate, while women sat on the left side of the temple. A veil separated them.
Some of the men joined for a dinner celebration. Sukkot, after all, is a happy holiday.
The celebration lasted for hours, ending at 11 p.m. when clouds and rains gathered over the hut. Over wine and vodka and bread and meat, one man said he was thankful that Esther was able to die during the holiest moment of the year, minimizing what suffering she might feel in the afterlife.
God, Rabbi Kahanov said, “does not give you a challenge you can’t handle.”