Far away from the violence in Israel, Alan Edelman heard the news of four people being killed Tuesday during their morning prayers in Jerusalem’s Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood.
“I got a lump in my throat and a heavy heart,” said Edelman, associate executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City.
He knew that Har Nof is home to many Americans who have moved to Israel, including friends from Kansas City.
Then word spread through social media that Rabbi Kalman Levine, 55, was one of three rabbis struck down alongside a fourth man by two Palestinian men armed with a gun, knives and cleavers.
Growing up in Kansas City, Levine was known as Cary Levine, a 1976 graduate of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park.
Also among the victims was Rabbi Mosheh Twersky, 59, originally from Boston and part of a celebrated Hasidic dynasty. His nephew, Rabbi Meshulam Twersky, teaches third- and fourth-grade Jewish studies at Hyman Brand, where he is in his third year as a teacher.
Witnesses and Israeli leaders were particularly horrified at the religious overtones of an attack on a synagogue that killed men in ritual garments and spilled blood on prayer books. Other worshipers were wounded, several of them seriously.
The assailants, identified as two cousins from East Jerusalem, were killed at the scene in a gun battle with police that wounded two officers, one of whom died of his injuries Tuesday night.
Witnesses and police said the attackers stormed into the synagogue complex.
“I turned and saw someone with a gun starting to shoot people next to him at point-blank range,” worshiper Yosef Posternak told Israel Radio. “Immediately after that, someone came in with a butcher’s knife and began lashing out in all directions.
“People were lying on the floor, and there was blood everywhere. There were people trying to confront them here and there, but they didn’t have much of a chance.”
The attack further strained relations with Palestinians at a time of heightened tension and violence fueled in large part by a dispute over a holy site in the Old City.
President Barack Obama condemned the killings, saying in a statement that “there is and can be no justification for such attacks against innocent civilians.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack “an act of pure terror and senseless brutality.”
He spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a bid to prevent further escalation.
‘A gentle soul’
At Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, students wrote letters of condolences to the families of both Levine and Mosheh Twersky.
“HBHA was directly touched by the loss of two of the victims of this terrorist attack,” Howard Haas, the head of school, said late Tuesday afternoon at a brief news conference inside the school at 115th Street and Nall Avenue.
Haas and the other speaker, Rabbi Daniel Rockoff, a teacher at the school and president of the Kansas City Rabbinical Association, extended their sympathies to the Levine and Twersky families.
They said teachers had tried to explain the tragedy to students in ways for them to understand. Faculty and staff also held an impromptu prayer and memorial service for both men with thoughts of their families.
“May their memory be a blessing to them all,” Haas said.
Earlier Tuesday, Levine’s family and friends gathered in grief at the home of his parents, attorney Bernard Levine and his wife, Joan, south of the County Club Plaza. Those who answered the door kindly declined to answer questions so soon after the tragedy.
Edelman said he had visited Levine several times with his family in Israel. Edelman’s wife and Levine attended Hyman Brand together.
“He was very, very special,” Edelman said of Levine, a father of nine children and grandfather to five. “He was just a gentle soul with a kind heart.”
Levine studied the Talmud and Torah at the University of Southern California before leaving for Israel in his 20s. Part of his life’s work was putting Orthodox Judaism in a positive light.
“He was very committed to being in the land of Israel,” Levine’s brother-in-law, Jonathan Bein of Boulder, Colo., told The Associated Press. “There are people, once they get there, their ethic is to never leave the land of Israel. He was one of those people.”
On its website, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted a eulogy from Levine’s son, Rabbi Yerachmiel Levine, recounting his father’s devotion to prayer.
“My father would study (Torah) all day long and would return home at night only to learn some more until he would fall asleep in his chair. Abba (Father), you were in the middle of saying the Shema (prayer) when your soul left your body and the terrorists came and murdered you.”
As is custom, Levine was buried within 24 hours, in Givat Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem.
Levine’s former brother-in-law, Shimon Kraft of Los Angeles, told ABC News that he had known Levine since they were 7 years old and both in the first class of Hyman Brand in 1966.
Kraft said Levine lived in a “safe neighborhood” of Jerusalem and had not talked about being worried for his safety.
“He got killed in the same place he prayed every day for years,” Kraft said. “When you live there, you don’t think it’s going to happen in your neighborhood.”
All the victims lived in the Har Nof neighborhood, perched on a verdant hill in Jerusalem’s far west. It is a collection of modern-looking concrete buildings far removed from the flashpoints in this contested city.
The synagogue complex houses several prayer groups and a large community hall on a quiet street. Several residents of the Har Nof neighborhood said the building was a center of life for Jews of Eastern European descent, and the hall was popular for weddings, film screenings and speeches.
Like Levine, the other victims held dual Israeli citizenship, two from the United States and one from England.
Twersky was the son of Isadore Twersky, a Harvard scholar and Boston rabbi who died in 1997, and the grandson of Orthodox philosopher Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, who died in 1993.
The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that Twersky immigrated to Israel with his family in 1990. He lived next door to the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue, where the attack occurred. He is survived by his wife, five children and 10 grandchildren.
The other rabbi killed was Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, 68, from Liverpool, England. He worked in publishing before moving to Israel in 1993. He has six children and multiple grandchildren.
The fourth victim, Aryeh Kupinsky, 43, spent his early childhood in the Detroit area before moving with his family to Israel, friends told the Detroit Free Press. He worked with computers.
“Aryeh was known to never refuse anyone seeking assistance in any form, always seeking ways to assist others,” the Israel ministry reported. He is survived by his wife and five young children. One daughter died two years ago in her sleep at age 13.
The two assailants — identified as Odai Abed Abu Jamal, 22, and his cousin Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal, 32 — reportedly were motivated by what they perceived to be threats to the holy site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
The site contains the Dome of the Rock, a site with sacred significance to Muslims and Jews. It also contains the Al Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Before Tuesday’s attack, six people, including a baby, a soldier and a border police officer, had been killed in a spate of vehicular and knife attacks fueled in large part by a dispute over the area.
Netanyahu repeatedly has said he will not change the status quo at the site. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit but not openly pray there.
Abbas, nonetheless, has called on Palestinians to protect the area. He has warned of a “holy war” if it is “contaminated” by Jews praying at the site.
Netanyahu called Tuesday’s attack “the direct result of the incitement” led by Abbas and Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction. He vowed that Israel would “respond with a heavy hand” to the murders, and he ordered that the homes of the attackers be demolished.
Kerry called on Palestinian leaders to condemn the attacks. Abbas later did condemn the attack, with his office issuing a statement denouncing all attacks on civilians.
“They must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language, from other people’s language, and exhibit the kind of leadership that is necessary to put this region on a different path,” Kerry said in London after speaking to Netanyahu by telephone.
Obama said at the White House that “too many Israelis have died; too many Palestinians have died.”
“At this difficult time, I think it’s important for both Palestinians and Israelis to try to work together to lower tensions and reject violence,” the president said.
He added: “We have to remind ourselves that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis overwhelmingly want peace.”
The New York Times, McClatchy News Services and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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