On Loss: A Child

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SUMMARY

This episode is sponsored by our friends Victor and Jessica Kagan in honor of Rochel Mindel bas Noson Nuteh and Naftali ben Chaim Shraga Feivel.

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Mirlana Morris about the loss of her son, Donny, and perpetuating the memory of a loved one.

Mirlana lost her son, Donny, in last year’s Meron tragedy when he was 19 years old. Mirlana speaks about choosing to live a life of emunah instead of being angry with God, and shares how she perpetuates the legacy of her beloved son. 

 

  • Where does a mother find the strength to move forward after confronting a loss of such large magnitude? 
  • How can one comfort the bereaved with sensitivity? 
  • What does mourning have in common with Chol HaMoed and what does it teach us? 

 

Tune in to hear a conversation on love, loss, and moving forward. 

Interview begins at 12:21 

 

Musical Credit: Im Eshkachech by Itzhak Azulai

 

References:

Kedusha, Shabbos Davening

Mimkomcha” as sung at the funeral of Donny Morris

Donny Morris’ schedule

Daniel Ish Chamudot: A Parsha Companion in Bein Adam L’chaveiro in Memory of Donny Morris z”l by Yeshivat Sha’alvim

Living Emunah by Rabbi David Ashear

B’Yadcha” by Rinas Amcha

David Bashevkin:
Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities, to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and today we’re exploring the topic of loss. This episode and our coverage of loss this year are sponsored by one of my dearest friend, Victor, and his wife, Jessica Kagan in honor of Rochel Minda bas Nosson Nota and Naftali ben Chaim Shraga Feivel. To discover more of 18Forty content on the topic of loss, visit 18forty.org, one eight F-O-R-T-Y dot org, where throughout the nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av, we’ll be having new content exploring and examining the topic of loss in our religious lives.

Astute listeners may notice that the introductory music to this podcast is not our normal fare, and the reason is twofold. First and foremost, there is a custom observed by many not to listen to instrumental music during the nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av that begins on Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the month up until Tisha B’Av, there is a custom not to listen to instrumental upbeat music. And secondly, I think this song and the context of this song really helps us better understand what confronting loss is all about. The words for this song derive from the words that we say during kedushah, when we come together as a community and repeat the shemoneh esrei, particularly on Shabbos, we say the following words. And I’ll read it in Hebrew. And then I’ll translate.

Mimkomcha Malkeinu sophia, from your place, our God, King, You will appear. v’timloch aleinu, and you will reign over us. Ki mechakim anachnu lach, because we wait, we anticipate You. And the song, the high part of the song, which is taken again from kedushah on Shabbos, Masai timloch b’Tzion, when will you reign in Zion, b’karov b’yameinu, speedily in our days. L’olam v’aed tishkon, forever and ever. Tisgadel v’tiskadesh, the words that come from the famed prayer of kaddish now appear over here, that You should be exalted and sanctified b’toch Yerushalayim ircha, within Jerusalem, Your city l’dor v’dor, in each generation. U’lenetzach netzachim, and for all eternities.

It’s fascinating that this appears during our Shabbos prayers during kedushah, it is very often sung as you heard it sung in the introduction. Why does it appear specifically during these prayers? Why is it specifically on Shabbos that we have such a moving prayer, crying out and calling for God, so to speak, to have His presence manifest in our lives. It is not the language that we use during the week. It is specifically on Shabbos that we talk about this. And I think the reason why this comes specifically on Shabbos has to do with the way that we contend with loss, the way that we examine and allow loss to be manifest with our own lives. I’ve always found it striking when I used to study in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, there was a custom they had, and it’s a custom I’ve seen in many other institutions, mostly in yeshivas, but I’ve seen it in non-religious institutions as well.

And that is if you go to the front of the beit midrash, right to the right of the aron kodesh, the central arc, where they take out the sifrei Torah. In Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, you will find an empty chair and I’ve always found it incredibly striking and moving that there is an empty chair. There’s no one who is assigned to sit in that chair. There’s nobody whose chair that belongs to, it remains empty. Why do they have an empty chair in the beit midrash of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore? It was the chair of their founding rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Ruderman, who began the yeshiva. And ever since he has been in the yeshiva, I believe ever since he has passed, no one else has occupied that chair and they leave that chair empty. There is a curious relationship that we have with loss that sometimes absence needs to be highlighted.

And I think one of the most moving ways that we do that is giving a presence to absence itself, highlighting what we are missing, highlighting what has been lost. An empty chair in a beis midrash is the presence of absence. It is showing you that we do not have everyone present in this room. There is somebody missing in this room. And I believe that throughout Jewish life and throughout our life, we really have two ways of highlighting loss of highlighting absence. And these two ways are paralleled in the ways that we commemorate the very destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, which is what we reflect upon on Tisha B’Av. As Rabbi Soloveichik was fond of noting and as others have pointed out as well, we have two mechanisms through which we remember the Beis HaMikdash. We have some customs and rituals, which are in memory of the Beis HaMikdash.

They are practices that we go through in order to remember what life was like when the Beis HaMikdashwas there, when the temple in fact stood. Observances, such as taking the lulav all seven days of Sukkos, which was really only done in the time of the temple and the time of the Beis HaMikdash, once it was destroyed Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai said we should do this all the time, zeicher l’Mikdash, in memory of the presence that we have lost, in memory of that life, that we are no longer able to live. These are a set of rituals, and it’s not the only one, there are many other examples of things that we do to remember, so to speak that we have lost. There are other things that we do that are not zeicher l’Mikdash, but that are zeicher l’churban. They are in memory of what was destroyed. They are highlighting what is absent.

We have several rituals and observances, which are meant to highlight that we are missing something. They are not perpetuating the customs that we had when the temple stood, but they are highlighting the fact that we are missing something, something is absent. I think in many ways in our lives and in our families, we have both of these things. We can lose a loved one, we can have a patriarch. We have somebody in our family who’s lost. And the way that we perpetuate their memory, so to speak is through zeicher l’Mikdash. To continue the observances, the values, the things that characterize their lives so long as they were with us,. We continue them even within their absence. That may be telling over stories and jokes or repeating ideas and values that they embodied within their lifetime.

Yet we do something else. And that is zeicher l’churban. To remember the absence itself, to remember that we are missing something. To leave, so to speak, a chair empty at a table. To remember that when we gather together, not everyone is here, not everything that needs to be present no longer exists. We give a presence to absence itself. And I believe in many ways, this is what we are doing on Shabbos when we say kedushah. It is in the middle of kedushah on Shabbos in the most sanctified moment when we repeat the shemoneh esrei, and we gather together as a community and we taste the wholesomeness, the beauty of the redemptive experience that Shabbos represents. And throughout Shabbos, we actually give presence to absence because if we are going to really experience the redemptive nature of Shabbos, we also need to give some presence to the absence of redemption that still exists in our lives.

And that is why so much of Shabbos liturgy actually highlights the absence of the Beis HaMikdash, of the temple. Because if Shabbos is one expression of redemption in time, then we also need to recognize that we still are absent the redemption in space, namely the Beis HaMikdash, the temple. And when we come together on Shabbos as a community and repeat our prayers, collectively, the shemoneh esrei, when we come together in kedushah, we’re able to have a moment and say, “While we have this redemptive experience of time, that we’re able to palpably create in our lives, we still need to recreate the presence of absence of the redemption of space in this world, most notably the absence of the Beis HaMikdash.” And it’s why there is an element of lament within this prayer. We’re not mourning on Shabbos. In fact, what we are doing is reminding ourselves and connecting to the presence of the Beis HaMikdash through its absence. By repeating the lines of ki mechakim ananchnu lach, that we still wait, we still anticipate that that wholeness and that presence. And the only way to hold onto some things in their absence is by highlighting the presence of absence itself.

And that is that second path, not the path of zeicher l’Mikdash, not the path of highlighting and continuing the values and ideas that existed within the presence of the Beis HaMikdash, within the presence of a person’s lifetime, but zeicher l’churban. The memory of the destruction, the memory of what is absence and giving presence and longing and anticipation for that wholeness to return. And I think it’s for that reason why I find this song so moving and in particularly where this song is being sung. The introductory song of Mimkomcha was sung together as a group at the funeral of Donny Morris of blessed memory, one of the 45 souls who were lost at the tragedy in Meron.

And it was at his funeral, at that time when they were saying their final goodbyes, that the crowd began to sing Mimkomcha. A song that we normally associate with Shabbos, but I think in a larger sense is giving presence to absence and finding a way in these ephemeral lives that we live to give some stability, some connection that we’re able to perpetuate memory and recognize absence. L’dor v’dor u’lenetzach netzachim, to take the impermanence of our lives and through whatever means possible, find a way to still remain connected and attached to the stability of God and spirituality that endures through all generations and for all eternities. It is why it is our deep privilege to speak today to Donny’s mother Mirlana Morris. This is an absolute privilege to be speaking today with Mirlana Morris, the mother of Donny Morris, who passed away on Lag B’Omer during the massacre in Meron, the tragedy in Meron. Every year we talk a little bit about loss, about memory, what it means to confront loss and perpetuate somebody’s memory, especially those we love around Tisha B’Av. So it is really our privilege to welcome Mirlana Morris.

Mirlana Morris:
Thank you so much for having me.

David Bashevkin:
I wanted to begin not with the loss, but really who Donny was because I found it incredibly remarkable. There was one thing about Donny. I felt like we shared a lot in common because we went to the same yeshiva, I’m Sha’alvim alum too. He grew up in Bergenfield, I grew up in the Five Towns, but we live fairly close to one another. And there was something that people were able to almost identify their better selves within Donny.

And the one thing that really stood out to me, which was so deeply moving, it was passed around a lot online. And I remember my heart sank when I saw it, because I was so moved. I would’ve been moved regardless of the context of how it was shared, but he had this schedule from yeshiva, and his schedule from yeshiva had his daily learning, which was very impressive, might I add. But the part that I found most moving was that on Thursday night on his schedule, he wrote call Grandma. And it was in his schedule. Somebody who puts that in their schedule is a certain kind of person. How do you describe Donny?

Mirlana Morris:
Thank you. So obviously I think every parent feels that their kid is wonderful. And Donny was special, we always thought so of course, like our other children, but there definitely was something unique about him. I’m not sure I even realized the extent of it till after he was gone. But even from a very, very young age, he was very rigid. Some would say OCD, and as a child, it was actually a little bit difficult to deal with because he wanted everything to be so perfect and so right. And while that could be amazing, it could be very difficult that as a parent.

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Mirlana Morris:
We always went home a certain way and let’s say that road was closed and I had to switch a different way, he would freak out. He’d like, “No, we have to go left. We always go left.” And if I pulled into the driveway a different way like, “No, turn around, turn around.” I’m talking about like a year and a half years old.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
So I remember it being quite a challenge and even speaking to a professional like, “What do I do? I’m not used to this.” And I’ll never forget that the therapist at the time said, “No, I’m not putting him on medication. No, he does not have OCD, there’s no diagnosis for him. He’s just almost too smart for his own age. And eventually you’ll see, it’s going to become a positive thing and he’s going to grow into himself.” “Okay.” So at that point that wasn’t so comforting because I still had to deal with it, right? And then I had two other children after that and for, I would say, a good five to seven years, he was like that in a way that it was very difficult.

However, as he started to get older, I really, really saw what he was talking about. And it just was so much easier because when he came home from school, I didn’t have to argue with him, go do your homework you don’t watch TV first. He would just naturally go do his homework. He would do whatever the teachers told him to do. He would go to other people’s houses for play dates. And they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I love your son. We always want Donny to come over.” He really was just a very good kid who followed rules. And I guess in his own way, kind of had his schedule so to speak from a younger age. And he just loved to do everything right but also he always loved Torah and davening and I’ll always remember that. He didn’t like when my husband went to work and left the house, he always had a special bond with him and he would cry when Ari would leave unless Ari told him he was going to shul, so if Ari said he was going to shul

David Bashevkin:
He got a pass.

Mirlana Morris:
He got a pass. And many times Ari would have to take his black hat with him or a siddur because Donny was smart enough to realize like Ari-

David Bashevkin:
And pretend.

Mirlana Morris:
And pretend that he was going to shul. And if he was going to shul, Donny would stop crying and he was allowed to leave the house. And he started to go to hashkama with Aryeh. I want to say when he was seven years old.

David Bashevkin:
Wow.

Mirlana Morris:
He would probably wake up Aryeh half the time so he wouldn’t be late and they would go to shul. His bar mitzvah, and I think everyone still hates me in the community for making everyone come out on hashkamafor his bar mitzvah. But that was his minyan

David Bashevkin:
You did a hashkama bar mitzvah.

Mirlana Morris:
Yes we did.

David Bashevkin:
That’s my dream too. I want you to know that I’m hashkama Jew and my dream that I’ve already begun laying the groundwork for, I’m working harder on my wife. I’m like, “I want to do a hashkama bar mitzvah.” And I think the community’s going to hate me too.

Mirlana Morris:
Well it’s okay. Because you know what? Your close friends come out and that was really his minyan. So why should I make it in another one-

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Mirlana Morris:
That’s not where he davened? Which actually now it’s a beautiful thing that in Beth Abraham in the shul. We are actually turning the beit midrash, which is where the hashkama minyan is held, into Donny’s beis and it’s going to be beautiful and it’s going be in his name and everything like that. So, but with that being said he just loved it. When he went to camp, he went to Camp Dora Golding for many, many years. And he went to the Cocoa Club every morning. He just loved it. He loved to daven and he loved to learn and we always knew that. But I guess what we didn’t really realize was also, as you had mentioned was like call Grandma was his bein adam l’chaveiro piece and all the wonderful-

David Bashevkin:
Interpersonal, like how he would-

Mirlana Morris:
Deal with others. And I have to say when he first passed away and people would tell me stories, I don’t want to say I was cynical about it. I was like, “Yeah, of course you’re just going to tell me he’s a great kid.”

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
“Oh, he was wonderful. Oh, that smile was beautiful.” And I like, “You didn’t tell me that three years ago. I’d never heard people say he has such a great smile.”

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
Where are all these stories coming from? Are you just trying to make me feel better? But the truth is one after another, you started to realize it’s not made up. People are just not making up their stories and there were very specific ones. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, he’s a great kid.” They would give me like a detailed thing. Like for example, let’s say in camp, most people request bunk mates or specifically don’t put me with someone. But I was told and I was shown that people were asking for Donny to be their counselor. That doesn’t typically happen.

David Bashevkin:
Wow.

Mirlana Morris:
So it’s true. And those were things pre-Donny. And then people were just, that’s all the stories. You could just see everyone really felt like he was their best friend. He made everyone feel that way. He gave everyone that attention and it’s so funny when people come over me. Yeah, so Donny and I were best friends.” “Oh Donny and I, when we were best friends.” And I’m like, “Mm, okay.” I didn’t know that. I don’t think he even thought that, but the feeling that he gave others to feel that way, obviously he was very special in a sense.

David Bashevkin:
It’s so interesting that you’re telling me that because I began with the schedule. And I’ll be honest, the first time I saw the schedule, I saw, you know, it was very moving, very beautiful. A little teeny tiny part of me was like, “Oh, this is like someone who like just started doing this kind of thing.” Like in Israel, like he’s, “Oh, he’s like flipping out.” But this was who he was regimented, focused, disciplined, and having all of that. And the fact that you put in your schedule as a part of your religious schedule to call your grandmother, it says something about a person. That’s not the break from your learning, that’s a part of your religious development, which is really, really incredibly powerful. One of the reasons why I specifically like to talk, I don’t like to talk, but we do talk about loss before Tisha B’Av is because there is a notion of Tisha B’Av kind of subsuming all tragedy. That it is described as the time where all tears, all difficulty, all challenges are subsumed within Tisha B’Av. We don’t commemorate it with other holidays. We don’t have separate holidays for every tragedy. We have Tisha B’Av that, so to speak, subsumes all tragedy.

And I wanted to kind of speak a little bit about what it means to confront a tragedy of the magnitude of losing somebody so dear, like Donny, in your life, and specifically, maybe you could speak a little bit about what it means to confront such a loss. It’s different. My father’s an oncologist, so he’s definitely dealt with families who have experienced loss that I would say are more gradual or over time. Donny’s loss, which was a loss that was shared with the Jewish people, it was in the headlines, was extraordinarily sudden and was the grieving process was very public. It was with the Jewish people. And I’m curious to hear from you about how you initially confronted that loss. And then maybe we could talk a little bit about what healing, what processing looked like.

Mirlana Morris:
Sure. So of course this loss came as a surprise, not to say that watching, if he were to God for a bit sick, and watching him go through that would’ve been any better. I don’t really have what to compare it to of course. But yes, dropping him off at the airport for his year in Israel, which he was so excited for. And then to think that was the last time I ever saw him is crazy. Of course, we were supposed to go several times throughout his year, but COVID-

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
And it made that happen. And then he was supposed to come home for Pesach. And there was that slight possibility, you know, because of COVID that he wouldn’t get back into the country.

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Mirlana Morris:
So he was too nervous so at the last minute he chose to stay. And it’s hard, but that’s what, again, his year in Israel, he didn’t want to miss out if he would not have been able to go back that would’ve been devastating for him. So to think we dropped him off in August and never saw him again is very difficult.

I’m a private person actually with a lot of things. We had just bought a house a month before and I told people that week that we were moving. So then for now this loss became everyone’s-

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
Loss, which I understand but when he went missing, I was getting calls. There was Tehillim chats and so many things were going on throughout that night. It was comforting knowing so many people cared and came to rally with us. But it was extremely difficult even when we were told that he had actually passed away, there was like people in my house and then people just kept coming. It was really I don’t even how to describe it. It was just-

David Bashevkin:
It’s otherworldly. It’s the most private, intimate moment in a person’s life. And everybody wants to like share in the loss, but there’s a balance of giving space to the actual person who’s grieving. And that’s really tricky. It’s terrain that people probably don’t do perfectly. We’re not trained, thank God because we don’t expect to have these things. But you’re kind of in a room with people coming in and out, the askanim, the people helping. And at that moment you want to be alone. You feel alone, I’m sure.

Mirlana Morris:
Of course. And sometimes there was so many people around, so there were people technically there, but inside of course you just feel alone. You just want to just like go into bed.

Inside, of course, you just feel alone and you just want to go into bed, cover yourself with a blanket and just be done but that’s not how I did it or realized that’s not the way to do it. Having emunah, which of course I do and having a family and a husband and two other children, that wasn’t the choice I was going to make was just to fold, right? We had to continue on. Never going to move on but need to move forward. So confronting the loss to me, how I made it through or continue to make it through, because every day is different.

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Mirlana Morris:
Some days are ten times worse than others and I have bad days. Very bad days but I think what helps me and our family is first of all knowing that we do have such an amazing support system, but also the belief that I think I feel that he didn’t die in vain.

I feel he had a purpose and I think that it’s been somewhat clear throughout so many things throughout the year and continues on in his memory is what helps. Not that we need attention and we don’t need people constantly talking about him in that sense, but knowing that people have really been able to change for the better because of him and the situation is… I don’t want to say comforting but it helps you move on. Like you don’t feel he didn’t die without a purpose.

So many people, throughout the world, he’s touched. I think him, all the 45 kedoshim, right? They made a difference. They made an impact. He’s part of Jewish history and I have to believe that while he was doing so much good here, like so much good.

In a twisted way, he’s kind of reaching more people now and more people are doing good because of him and when I start thinking or feeling sad, I just say, if we believe in you know, the Jewish faith and we believe in olam haba and everyone says, a minute there is better than a whole lifetime here, right? And that’s what we’re supposed to believe and we do, then how am I supposed to be upset? He’s in the right place. He’s happy. He’s where he’s supposed to be. To me, it’s sad and I miss him a lot but I know that he’s happy. I do. I mean, I wish I really knew because there’s no way to really know.

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Mirlana Morris:
But I have to believe that he is. Someone one time said that when you’re under 20 years old, you don’t get judged and you go straight to shamayim. He was 19. He got a ticket straight to the kisei hakavod, right?

We always want what’s best for our children, we all daven, right? That our kids should be great kids and he was. I don’t feel my tefillahs weren’t answered. I feel they were in a very different type of way. I never imagined that but it did. He was a great kid. He made an impact. He’s still making an impact on this world and I’m supposed to be angry. I can’t, I’m not angry. I’m sad but I’m not angry and I think that’s how I’m able to cope, so to speak, with the loss because I know that he’s in a good place. He’s in the right place. As hard as it is for me, I believe that he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be.

David Bashevkin:
I heard once from Rabbi Genack something, that I always found deeply moving where Rabbi Genack, talking about the loss of somebody in his life that he knew, that meant a great deal and he said that great poetry and great music, is, their beauty is never measured by their length. Their impact is never measured by their length and in some ways that is powerful and true of a life and of a person.

So, you know, I paid a shiva call and I remember the house was… It was during the in-between period of COVID. It was when people… So I think it was still masked at the time.

Mirlana Morris:
Some did, some didn’t.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. Some did, some didn’t but I think there were outdoor windows open, and I’m curious about what your relationship is to the halachic process of mourning, of the shiva period. I think there’s always mistakes, faux pas that people make when they come in. There’s things that you learn that are incredible about the person.

How did you manage? What was your experience through shiva, with the- even being present? It’s so hard. I’m a natural introvert even though I spend a lot of time outside, but you said, going upstairs and going under the covers, that’s a reaction just to cope with anything. I don’t want to be public. Private is what gives me strength. So I’m curious what your reflection was on the process of people coming in, circling in. You had a sign-in book to see who was there. I remember I signed it in Sha’alvim class of ’02, I believe. ’02, ’03 but I’m curious, what did you learn about the Jewish process of mourning?

Mirlana Morris:
So I definitely feel like there’s a reason. Everything that has been put in place for us, there’s a reason for it and you don’t always realize that till, you said, you go through it and you really reflect upon it. So at the time, I said from day one, there were people in my house. I feel I really sat shiva for an extra few days.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
So it already started on Friday, which was a little bit hard because we never really had that time to cope alone but on the other hand, it is comforting knowing that there’s so much support and you said, hearing all these amazing stories that I did not know and I’m like, “Is this my son?” Sometimes I felt there were times I was, “I’m his mother and I didn’t even know these things. Where was I?”

But I think that sometimes also that made it more special, because he didn’t try to show off or he didn’t do things for my husband and I to know. I’ll tell you before he passed away, in April, I had bumped into a friend and she’s like “mazal tov“, I’m like, “For what?” I didn’t even know what she was talking about. She goes, “Donny.” I’m, “Donny, what?” So she’s, “Oh, my son’s in Sha’alvim.” And I have all these pictures. He did a siyum because he was born erev Pesach. So I guess not have to fast. He had done a siyum for the entire Sha’alvim on Psachim.” Which is…

David Bashevkin:
Wow.

Mirlana Morris:
A bit difficult.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
And he didn’t even tell us and I called my husband and he’s, “No, I had no idea.” So I called Donny, I’m, “I’m so proud!” And he’s, “Oh, no big deal. I just started learning it.” He didn’t do things for a pat on the back and all those stories throughout the week, it was just one after another, after another, and it was sad. They’re all sad but it’s that mixed emotions, bittersweet. So it definitely helped. I think that a lot of people that came, friends of his, friends of ours, from all different parts of our lives. From my childhood friends to co-workers, to colleagues, everything, my husband, it was quite a whirlwind. I mean, there are definitely people who were there just to mourn with us from a klal Yisrael standpoint.

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Mirlana Morris:
And we’re not… Anyone we knew. Most people were amazing.

You always have those people who I don’t believe anything is their fault. They don’t mean to say things that are hurtful or inappropriate.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
Sometimes people should just probably not say anything if they don’t know what to say.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
I do remember one person coming in, very odd. I don’t even know he was a rabbi but he looked something and I remember him getting up. Then he was, “Your son was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I’m like “You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could you please leave?” It was really odd. So we had a few of those encounters but overall there’s something to be said about shiva. I mean, I don’t know people are with you, which you don’t realize that you need. Reminiscing and hearing stories. Stories were good but there was something about it that was warming, right?

David Bashevkin:
Restorative, sure.

Mirlana Morris:
I didn’t realize until the day you get up from shiva, I never knew this obviously, because why would I know? The rabbi came over and he’s, “We need to go outside.” I’m like “What are we doing?” He’s, “So technically, Donny, the person that passes away, is with you the entire shiva. And on the last day, you walk around the block and that’s when you kind of say goodbye and they go up shamayim.” So, that was really difficult. That was really difficult. I didn’t realize that till that day. That the neshama is really there.

David Bashevkin:
And the most painful part being the stepping outside and almost stepping away from the shiva process-

Mirlana Morris:
Yeah.

David Bashevkin:
… is the most painful transition because you’re now kind of rejoining and I’m saying this with very clear air quotes, the normalcy, that now you’re rejoining the routine, and that shift can feel that you’re stepping away from that ritual observance where you have the memory, the neshama kind of captured through the practice.

Mirlana Morris:
Right.

David Bashevkin:
Do you have any… It’s a strange thing to say and the answer could be no. Do you have any advice? I mean, any time somebody steps in and I remember for myself, you know, when I heard Donny had passed, right away you want to be there on behalf of klal Yisrael. There’s also a feeling of, “They don’t know me. I’m not going to say anything. I don’t really have any memories aside of the fact that we shared an institution in Israel.” And I remember when I came there, I think there was literally a bus of people coming. Do you have any advice for what it means to participate, to be there, to be present, in the aftermath of such a tragic loss? Not on the side of the person who’s grieving but of the person who’s trying to provide some comfort. Meaning, did you learn anything? Do you have any direction to say, “This is something that is helpful, this is something that is not helpful.”

Mirlana Morris:
So I think that’s a hard question to answer because what I may need or want, is different than what maybe what was helpful for my husband or my son or my daughter. So like my son, for example, he’s an MTA and he was in 10th grade at the time and for him, it was good for him that the buses came from MTA and they had different shifts and different times and they kept him busy and-. He was just talking with them all day and distracted. That was good for him. While my daughter is definitely more private and she was like, “Stop the trips. I don’t want the school coming.” Not for any other reason. She’s, “But if they didn’t talk to me yesterday in school, why would they come here today?”

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
Her point is, “We’re not friends.”

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
Not in a bad way. It’s nice that you want to do something nice but that’s not for her.

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Mirlana Morris:
I think it really is a very personal thing and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for somebody else. I Think, I don’t want to talk for my husband per se but I think that he talked a lot throughout shiva. He liked hearing the stories. I also did.

To me, my biggest fear actually and I have said that our first day that we sat shiva was in Sha’alvim, so you could only imagine how difficult that was.

David Bashevkin:
Sure. In the yeshiva.

Mirlana Morris:
In the yeshiva, where he was. Also, a lot of his friends from childhood came even if they were in Sha’alvimor not. To see boys his age, not him was hard, and on one hand while it was difficult, I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to know everything and I did throughout, find out everything about him, even that night. Like all the details that happened. A lot of parents wouldn’t want to know or wouldn’t want to see the videos and things that went on that evening.

David Bashevkin:
You wanted to have…

Mirlana Morris:
I needed to know. I had no control over what happened to him but for whatever I could have control over after that, I needed to do for myself. That was part of my coping strategy. And for me, it worked and for somebody else, it wouldn’t.

David Bashevkin:
To know the details of what happened.

Mirlana Morris:
Everything.

David Bashevkin:
I’m curious and you don’t have to speak on this, I’m actually intrigued by that. I’m curious how this changed your relationship to klal Yisrael, to the Jewish people because on the one hand it was a tragedy of the Jewish people and we all carried it and shared it.

I remember that I spent that Shabbos in YU. I was the scholar-in-residence that Shabbos. It was the first time I was spending Shabbos in YU and I felt what do you say? People wanted to hear something.

On the other hand, the circumstances of his passing, as you just mentioned. You wanted to know these details was really a tragedy also in a way caused by klal Yisrael. I’m curious how you were able, how did you integrate these two things at the same time? That the Jewish people are there comforting you, they’re being there for you. On the other hand, it’s undeniable and it’s an inescapable. The circumstances of his passing was so horrific and tragic and it was at the hand, so to speak of the Jewish people.

Mirlana Morris:
Understood. So I really never put the two and two together that way. I can’t think of it that way. I mean again, I look at it more that I don’t really quite sometimes comprehend the amount of people that were at Meron that evening was astronomical. Throughout that night hundreds of thousands of people, and to think only 45 people passed away while that’s a catastrophe. It’s only, my chances of winning the lottery would’ve been greater. Right?

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Mirlana Morris:
So it’s like, Donny, the one kid from our type of world.

David Bashevkin:
Our circle, this isn’t…

Mirlana Morris:
Right. Why? It doesn’t even make sense but then I realized it’s not going to make sense. I could try to make it make sense. It doesn’t. The only thing I guess I try to cope with or understand or make it easier, I guess, for lack of a better word is that we needed someone. We, HaShem doesn’t need anything. We, klal Yisraelneeded someone like him to be part of it and to pass away because as we’ve seen, he’s been able to reach out to so many people. Just because the way we live our lives and between social media and you know, my upbringing, my husband’s upbringing, like we were from all the different high schools and camps and just keeps going on and on it just keeps reaching people and reaching people, and reaching people.

Just as sad that the other people passed away. Losing Donny is not any more sad than any of the other people who passed but they live a little bit more sheltered. Right? So they may not have reached as many people to make some sort of changes. I think that’s why I think Donny has almost become the icon of Meron in many ways. If you see a lot of the papers they have his picture, also lets go back to that picture for a minute. What’s the chances that…

David Bashevkin:
You mean the picture of him at Meron that was taken, which is a beautiful picture.

Mirlana Morris:
Seconds literally before he…

David Bashevkin:
Well, that was seconds before.

Mirlana Morris:
Yeah, pretty much before he got trampled. First of all, anyone who knows Donny, he does not like to take pictures.

David Bashevkin:
Oh, he does not like do pictures?

Mirlana Morris:
He’s in pictures in school and camps but when I asked him to take a picture, that’s not really his thing. The fact that his friend that he was with had told me that he insisted on taking that picture, which is kind of strange and they were trying to get out of there. It was already a mob scene. They were sweating. They had to get out and they were… But he’s, “No, please. We need to stop. I want to take a picture. I want to send it to my father. I want him to know how happy I am.”

David Bashevkin:
That’s what he said?

Mirlana Morris:
That’s what he said. Wow. So his friend was, “Okay, it’s not even going to come out, the lighting, the this, the that.” But at the end of the day you see that smile, that beam.

David Bashevkin:
Came out beautifully.

Mirlana Morris:
You can’t even make it up. It wasn’t…

David Bashevkin:
It was picturesque.

Mirlana Morris:
He was happy at a Mets game or wherever. He was truly simchas hachaim in the middle of Meron.

David Bashevkin:
Meron.

Mirlana Morris:
I think that’s also a piece of why he has taken on so much. He’s in Meron that picture. So when that picture went viral that he was missing, he was just… He’s there. I think that people, as we were saying, I think has touch on what you said before. He’s relatable. That’s why I think everyone was able to kind of connect to some degree and are still connecting to him because he was still just a normal kid. Yes. He had that impressive schedule. Yes. He was regimented. Yes. He liked to learn but he still loved sports. He liked to go to 711 for Slurpees. He was just a normal kid. He really was normal. At the same time he was really special. So anyone could be that person.

You don’t need to be the most grand learner. You don’t need to be anything really. You could just be a regular kid and just take upon yourself something extra. Right? Just do another good deed make someone feel good. Like, call your grandmother. Many people have told me that since then their children call their grandparents before Shabbos and that means so much to their grandparents, why did he have it on his schedule? Because you normally call your parents, your grandparents on Friday.

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Mirlana Morris:
Right. You don’t need to be reminded to call because that’s the normal thing to do.

David Bashevkin:
That’s the routine, yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
Exactly. But my mother-in-law, she’s very busy on Fridays, I guess and specifically I told Donny that it would be better if he could call me on Thursday.

David Bashevkin:
She rescheduled.

Mirlana Morris:
Yes. So that’s why… To remember on a Thursday to call for Shabbos is not something that you would normally remember. So he had to put it on his schedule to make sure that he still called my mother-in-law.

I think that’s pretty unique but anyone could do that. That’s not something, “Wow, so difficult.” But it does take someone who cares about somebody else to do that. I think we all could do a little something, take on something that we didn’t do before and relate more back to Donny.

David Bashevkin:
So that really brings me back. I really believe what you said because a lot of times when you are confronted again, not the actual family but when you are in a distance and you then find out about loss, you find that about all these tragedies but when you find that it’s somebody who had the same background as you, somebody who lived very close to you. It transformed a community that otherwise would not necessarily have been transformed in the same way.

There was something that everyone was able to see in themselves within his life, within his smile that I know really transformed this entire community. When I say community, I don’t mean Teaneck, Bergnefield. I mean, in the United States we were transformed. You mentioned people, how the public taking on a mitzvah, beginning to call your grandmother.

There were so many beautiful initiatives. Sha’alvim published an absolutely beautiful journal, a sefer in Donny’s memory, that was absolutely a beautiful and hopefully will be able to link to that online because it’s something really worth looking at.

I want to talk a little bit about memory because we spoke about what this loss was and there’s something deeply heroic about you and your own processing. Wanting to look directly at what happened, knowing the facts and then kind of being both removed and private and also having that private moment surrounded in the public. That’s kind of what I’m hearing, which is deeply powerful. You know, on Tisha B’Av

On Tisha B’Av we have this way of preserving the memory of loss and we have all of these rituals. We sit on low chairs, we say kinnos, and I always think of these as rituals, these are halachos that are preserving the memory of a loss, we want a loss to stay with us. And I’m curious for you about what you in your life… You mentioned other people’s life taking on a good deed. What does preserving Donny’s memory mean for you and the rituals? What are the moments that allow you to reconnect with both the memory, the life, and the loss? Because with Tisha B’Av, we do both. We have things that are both zeicher, in remembrance of the churban, of the destruction and the loss. And we also have things that are zeicher l’Mikdash that are in memory of the presence of the Beis HaMikdash, the presence of the temple. So memory is both the memory of the absence and the memory of the presence. And I’m curious for you, how do you remember the loss and how do you kind of commemorate and perpetuate the life?

Mirlana Morris:
So, I know there’s no day that goes by that I don’t remember Donny or think of him or link something back to him. Whether it’s just having social media and your memories pop up, right? So, sometimes I’ll be in a meeting or something and a memory will pop up out of nowhere. It’s like,you know, it’s actually quite sad. But you’re never going to forget it, right? There’s so many things that even in my own house that I look at and it’s Donny, even if it’s not him, it’s not his picture. Like there’s just certain things that just make you remember him, right?

I want to remember him, I don’t want to forget him, I don’t want anyone to forget him. I think that’s the part I struggle with the most is, yes, the first year, of course, there’s been so many amazing things and it’s still continuing. But, and I’m not saying there needs to be these huge things going on for him forever, but how do I know that he’s going to be remembered by everyone else? I don’t. And I think, of course everyone says they will, but I don’t know that and I think that’s kind of a fear of mine. And I remember the day when I was saying before that the first day we went to Sha’alvim, I remember at the end of it I was quote, unquote, fine, I had… My composure was okay throughout the day. And then at the end, when I was walking out, I remember turning around and looking at the boys and just saying, “Please don’t forget him.”

I know everyone needs to move on with their lives and they should. And they’re going to get married, they’re going to have their own families, and I think that’s… well, I’ll be so happy for everyone and I truly am. And I go to people’s weddings, and one of his good friends already got married and I really am happy for them actually. But it’s the mourning of the loss that could have been as well, and I think that that’s really difficult and I don’t want to do that alone. And it’s scary to think that it’s only been a year and a few months and a whole lifetime ahead of me without him.

And I know I’ll be able to preserve that memory, and I think that part of perpetuating his legacy is to do things like talk today. And when people ask me to talk or to do things and continue to do the things in his memory, but while I am private, to make it not so private because otherwise how am I going to do that, right? How am I going to expect to keep his life going and his legacy going if I just keep everything to myself? So, it’s also changing me a little bit, or a lot a bit. He’s actually helping me become a better person without even realizing it. And I have to change how I used to be in order to make sure for the greater good that we are able to perpetuate his legacy.

David Bashevkin:
You do not strike me as somebody who would have ever jumped for an interview outside of this context, and the fact that you were willing to even speak is deeply moving and is really… This is for Donny. This is for his memory and to have people think about what it means to perpetuate a memory to both remember absence and remember presence. I think those are two very different things. And when you were talking about being at the wedding and at a simcha of somebody else who’s a friend, you remember absence in those moments. And then there are times when people start calling their grandmother and do things that Donny did in his lifetime, and that’s remembering presence. What Donny in this very moment would’ve wanted me to do in my own life.

I’m curious about what it means to ritualize memory. And by ritualize, I mean, in some homes they have… Specifically as it relates to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, there’s an interesting custom that not everybody does, but I’ve always found fascinating, where they leave a part of the house that is unpainted or untouched. Some people do these really beautiful designs on it, which I’m always never sure if that’s counterproductive because it’s the most gorgeous part of the house. But they have something that relates to the fact that we’re not complete. This home, as beautiful as it is, we’re not complete. And I’m curious, in a personal loss, what that means. Meaning, what does that mean for Donny’s bedroom, for Donny’s things? Is there a place in the house that you left untouched? How does one both move forward, but also preserve a place that, in a real ritual sense, in a static sense that this is going to be here, still serves in that person’s memory?

Mirlana Morris:
So, I will tell you, we’re one of those people who has a little section that’s unpainted when you walk in. Painted differently, but no, it’s not beautiful at all.

David Bashevkin:
It’s not designed?

Mirlana Morris:
No, it’s not. So, we do have that, zeicher the Beis HaMikdash. So, the interesting thing is… I think it’s a pretty much a bracha. We had literally moved six weeks before he passed away, so Donny was never in the house. So it didn’t actually, I didn’t want to even tell him that we were moving, I thought it would be fun when we picked him up from the airport just to-

David Bashevkin:
It was a surprise to the community, you said.

Mirlana Morris:
Drive him to a new house. And I was going to do that until I was kind of advised, “Word gets out. He’s going to find out. And if he finds out from Israel that you moved and you didn’t tell him…”

David Bashevkin:
That’s a big deal. Yeah.

Mirlana Morris:
Yeah. And of course, ironically, when we moved, the movers broke his bed and I had to buy a new bed.

David Bashevkin:
Wow.

Mirlana Morris:
And I thought he was coming home for Pesach , so I was rushing to get his furniture and then the dresser wasn’t ready, which again, ironically got the moving company pulled up on Friday after we were told he passed away with the dresser and I’m like, “You need to leave. Today’s not the day to be delivering the dresser.” But anyways. So, he was never actually in the house, which again, the bracha pieces, I don’t picture him specifically anywhere. He doesn’t have that chair in the dining room. I don’t see him anywhere that… It’s his bedroom, but he was never in that bedroom. Right now it’s a shrine of Donny because all the fan mail and pictures and letters and everything that people have dropped off and sent right now is just in his room and I don’t exactly know what to do with it just yet. And I haven’t gotten that far.

So, I will say that during shiva, my friends had put up a lot of pictures around the house of Donny. They had blown up different pictures that were beautiful. But after like a few weeks, my daughter kind of said, “Can we take these away?” So, I did and there was nothing at all. And also I had not put up any family photos yet because, again, we just moved in.

David Bashevkin:
Just moved in. It’s so eerie.

Mirlana Morris:
It was so crazy and it was Pesach and we just never even had a chance to do a lot of stuff. But after a while I was like… There was one canvas I had from my daughter’s bat mitzvah of all of us and I love it, so I put… I asked my daughter actually if it was okay to put it up and she said okay. And we put it up in our living room, but you don’t see it unless you’re actually in the living room sitting, so when you walk into the house, it’s not a focal point. So, we started with that because he is our family and he’s always going to be our family. And I don’t want him not to be there, but it’s also that correct balance and also trying to make sure that my other kids are okay.

So, then a dream of mine always which I was unable to fulfill was to have family pictures in Israel by the Kotel, the Old City, and for whatever reason, we just never went as a family to Israel. And I struggle with that too. And then I was looking through the pictures one day and I found one that my husband had taken of Donny when he was a senior in high school to look at… Just the two of them went during Chanukah time to look at yeshivas for the following year. I don’t know, it’s almost looks like a photographer took this picture and it’s Donny by the side of the Kotel. It’s just magnificent. He’s just looking. It’s just great. It’s a great picture. And I’m like, I need to use this picture somehow.”

Because also you can’t really tell that it was two years ago. Like it’s a side profile, so the age wouldn’t matter if I now put it up. So, I spoke to the kids and I’m like, “How do I do this?” I feel weird taking family photos without him. On the other hand, I want to somehow incorporate it all. So, when we went this past January, we did hire a photographer and we took pictures in the Old City without him, obviously. And I have an interior designer helping me and I just have to… We’re almost ready to blow everything up and canvas it. So, we’re going to incorporate the whole thing, Donny by the Kotel and us in the Old City. And the way his view is, he’s going to be looking at us and we’re incorporating it all together.

So, my den will have him and it’ll be very open and front and center. And I’m sure it’s going to be hard once those pictures are up on some degree, but in the end of the day, I want him up, we want him up, and this, I thought, was a good way to do it.

David Bashevkin:
That’s soul stirring. That is deeply powerful and an incredible way… Again, I’m thinking about the halachicparadigm. You know, we build beautiful homes and it’s a piece of the home that is that memory. Doesn’t mean that you can’t have a home where you can’t breathe outside of the memory of the loss and that way of integrating him, both the loss and the life and being a part of your family, which he always is and will be, is really soul stirring. I don’t have another word to describe that. I’m curious just to conclude and really on a very personal level, just your courage, your thoughtfulness, your strength. I don’t know what’s the compliment you… It’s always difficult to pay a compliment to somebody after a loss.

And I don’t know what words you specifically like to hear or don’t like to hear and you could tell me. You’re like, “Don’t call me strong. Anything but. Or don’t call me.” But there’s something very vulnerable and alive in the way that you speak about Donny and it’s extraordinarily powerful. I want to end by talking a little bit about the things that help you heal, remember, and I wanted to conclude with basically asking you about a song, a tefillah, and maybe a book or an article or a word that somebody gave you. So, maybe we could begin with when in the process of healing, confronting loss, were there any books or articles that you read that somebody recommended you or even somebody that somebody told you that you found moving, that you found resonant? It could be more than one, of course.

Mirlana Morris:
Yeah, sure. I read a lot on the books of Living with Emunah.

David Bashevkin:
Okay.

Mirlana Morris:
I think I went through all of them because I felt like that’s where I needed to start and really that’s encompasses it all, right? If I don’t have emunah, I can’t move on because I don’t… And I don’t know how people move on to be honest, if not.

David Bashevkin:
I like the term you used, move forward.

Mirlana Morris:
Yeah, and that’s what it is. It is moving forward. You’re never going to truly move on. So, I went through those a lot. And it’s interesting because it kind of goes back to my professional side is, you know, I’m a COO of a company and I read a lot of books on leadership and how to be a better leader. And you’d be surprised that also helps me with this because being a better leader is also giving of yourself and how to treat others. And I felt like those books helped me with this too because how I would treat others is now how I needed people in a weird way to treat me. And not that I wanted to be the vulnerable one and I didn’t act like that, but it was kind of coming full circle on both ends. So, I would continue reading my work leadership books and also my Living with Emunah books, and that’s kind of-

David Bashevkin:
And those gave you that strength then. I’d like to know, is there a song, is there a specific… Even like a mitzvah that reminds you of Donny that for you is so to speak the place where you reengage with him?

Mirlana Morris:
So, songs… So everyone knows, I think, that the Sha’alvim… There was three Sha’alvim shana bet boys who composed a song for Donny. It’s beautiful,

[Song plays]

Mirlana Morris:

so I listen to that a lot. Happens to be a beautiful song, but also obviously of course it reminds me of him. I will say anything with Beis HaMikdash, Ani Maamin, all of those, actually they’re really hard for me. Those Im Eshkachech, those are a trigger and they are at every wedding.

David Bashevkin:
It’s a trigger in a different way than-

Mirlana Morris:
In a different way. It’s like a knife thing.

David Bashevkin:
Why? Do you mind explaining?

Mirlana Morris:
Because I never thought of those songs the same way as I do now. Now it’s like, do people really realize or did I ever realize what I was singing and saying? I believe in mashiach, I want mashiach to come. We want Yerushalayim to be rebuilt. Now I want more than ever, because that means I’ll be reconnected with Donny. And I never realized what I was truly saying. Even when I daven now, you know shmoneh esrei, and you’re saying tchiyas hameisim, did I really ever think about it? No. Not that I didn’t, but now I really… Every word means so different now.

David Bashevkin:
It has a heaviness, meaning it’s not making you angry trigger.

Mirlana Morris:
No, it’s not angry, it’s just-

David Bashevkin:
But it’s you’re sitting at a wedding and everybody’s kind of swaying to Im Eshkachech but all of a sudden you… There’s a heaviness to what it means in your life because your relationship to loss itself has been reoriented.

Mirlana Morris:
Correct. So, not trigger like I’m angry, but trigger that I just think of everything so differently and my yearning for you know, mashiach to come, it just has such a different meaning to me now because all I can really think about is reuniting with Donny, right? So, there’s no particular song I would say, but I think that and Rachel Mevaka mean so different to me now too. And they’re just so meaningful. I just feel like I always loved Jewish music, I just did, and now I really do. And every song somehow means something that’s more meaningful to me than it ever was before.

David Bashevkin:
There was a moment at the levaya, at his funeral where they began singing and that moment, it was otherworldly. It was otherworldly because it felt like you were reaching out to another world and hoping and not letting go of your grasp at that moment. My final question is about tefillah. And you had mentioned tchiyas hameisim, but I’m curious for you, what tefillahs, what prayers give you some sense of healing, some sense of strength? Where do you find yourself when we think about mourning, when we think about Tisha B’Av? So, part of the way we preserve is through kinnos as a lamentation, part of the way we preserve the Beis HaMikdash is through prayer. I’m curious when you think of your own loss, what are the tefillahs that allow you to feel most connected to Donny?

Mirlana Morris:
So, everyone else or a lot of people have taken upon things in memory of Donny to be a better person, I have too. And some of those are actually tefillah. It may sound kind of strange, but I actually always loved to daven and that’s one way I always connected.

David Bashevkin:
Definitely a stranger [inaudible 01:07:14].

Mirlana Morris:
No. And you know sometimes you’re rushing in the morning and I always run to a meeting, but thank goodness I always made time to daven. But sometimes I would skip things, I’m not going to say I didn’t. And one thing I always used to skip were the korbanot because, I don’t know, I just did. And now I started to say them because to me now the korbanot, again, have a different meaning. I actually picture them bringing their korbanot to the Beis HaMikdash and I picture that whole other afterlife that I never really did before, and then I pictured Donny in it.

So to me, I think all those type of tefillot are a way to connect with him. Shma koleinu, everything… Really, if you start picturing every single one, they really all go back to that. Also, even at night… I always said kriyat shema, but I, again, skipped over some. I want to go to bed knowing that I tried doing everything I could do during that day and… Not that I really sleep. But at least try. So, I’d say I added more of that too and try to connect with him as well.

David Bashevkin:
That is really incredibly moving to think that the korbanos, which is the part where, let’s be honest that we almost all skip it, has taken on new meaning. The pasuk that jumped out at me as you were saying that is what is on top of the aron kodesh in Aish Kodesh which talks about the mizbeach where the korbans were brought, which is the verse that talks about the fire on top of the mizbeach and says the eish tukad al ha’mizbeach, you should kindle a fire on the mizbeach, lo tichbeh, it should never be extinguished. And that should be equally true for the memory, life, and legacy of Donny. Really, that should be kindled and continued throughout in all of the hearts of the Jewish people. Mirlana Morris, it was an absolute privilege to speak with you today. Thank you so very much.

After I finished recording with Mirlana, we stood outside my house for a little bit reflecting on the interview and the difficulty of giving presence to absence, and even being able to speak about this. It was with a great measure of courage that I feel like she was able to share her story and the way that she goes about reanimating, so to speak, Donny’s life and the values that he lived by is so incredibly moving that it really gives expression to these two aspects of loss that we began with, of perpetuating and remembering the memory and the values of what we lost within our lifetime and also leaving space to commemorate, so to speak, as a picture to remember that empty chair of what we still don’t have, the path of zeicher l’Mikdash, the memory of the Beis HaMikdash and each of our lives, so to speak.

Being that Beis HaMikdash and also zeicher l’churban to remember the loss and the tragedy of what we no longer have palpably in our lives. On that driveway as we spoke together, she shared with me another presentation that she gave as she was just beginning to share her story. It was to a group of women who were doing a challah bake in memory of Donny because the family has embraced really perpetuating the values and the inspiration and the way that Donny has touched so many lives. And she sent it to me afterwards and I listened to it a few days later and I found it so moving that I wanted to include it again as a testimony to what emunah through loss is. Emunah as many have pointed out is a tricky term to translate. It’s usually translated as faith. I remember hearing from the rabbi of my shul when I was growing up, he was talking about a family who had also lost a child far too early.

And as the changing demographics of the shul, most of their friends had stopped davening in the shul. They continued coming to the shul that I grew up in. In fact, they even donated, I believe, one of the aron kodeshes that was used, not in the main minyan, but I believe in the downstairs minyan. And I remember, or I at least remember someone telling me that the rabbi one time spoke about this particular family and what the word emunah means. And he said the word emunah doesn’t just mean faith, the word emunah means to be loyal, to be loyal to a certain set of values, to stay true to a certain set of values, even when palpably the inspiration for those values no longer exists. And he looked at this family and he said, “You are baalei emunah, you are remaining loyal.” It had a double meaning when he was talking about this family because they’ve remained loyal to shul after so many of their friends left, but in a larger sense, their emunah was a loyalty to the values that they had raised their children. Was the values that their son had represented. And it’s that loyalty that at least for me, as a listener to Mirlana really embodies an emunah of loyalty of staying true to the values that she saw and raised within her son and that Donny embodied throughout his lifetime.

And that an emunah that we can have as listeners is not just an emunah, so to speak in God and in divine providence, even through loss, even through tragedy. But an emunah that we can have in each other, a loyalty to stay true to the values that we see embodied by others, and then to perpetuate their memory and their legacy within our lives. And it’s that emunah that Mirlana spoke so eloquently to this crowd.

Mirlana Morris:
Not even two weeks after the passing of Donny alav hashalom, I had to write a paper for my MBA program on a defining moment in my life. I will share with you this evening the first part of what I wrote six months ago, as it clearly was beginning of my journey. What is a defining moment? A defining moment to me is a moment in your life when you need to make a crucial decision, or when you experience something that fundamentally changes you. Not only did these moments define who you are, but they have an effect that transforms our future perceptions and actions. Donny, my 19-year-old firstborn before passed away tragically on April 30th in Meron, while celebrating Lag B’Omer. As you can imagine from the moment we found out he was gone, my life was forever changed. While it is still so raw and surreal, I had to make a decision early on as to what my thoughts and behaviors would be moving forward.

While I can’t say I have all the answers and I’m aware, I will never know why it was my son who was one of the 45 who died out of the hundreds of thousands who were in attendance. One thing I do recognize is how I chose to believe in HaShem and not doubt my emunah during a time that many would have. To do this is not easy, and to live with the pain is almost unbearable. But I know in my heart that HaShem has a bigger plan, even if I will never understand it. I definitely question at times “Why my son? Why take a 19 year old, who has this entire life ahead of him? Why Donny Morris, who I knew was an amazing young man. As well as through all of the hespedim and the many stories that I am learning about, it just makes no sense.”

While he was such a normal kid, he loved golf, the Mets, Slurpees, and going out with his friends, he simultaneously reached a level of learning that was way beyond his years. He treated everyone with a smile and his acts of kindness were non-parallel. So again, why take him? He is doing so much good on this earth, but yet who was handpicked to be up in shamayim. There are many who like to give their version as to why it was him that was chosen. And in all honesty, while at times it makes sense or provides comfort, I still can’t help, but to feel “Why Donny?”

However, even when all those thoughts go through my mind and they do often, and yes, I’ve had many sleepless nights. I’m still taking the significant moment to define me in a positive way and not turn me away from or be angry with HaShem. Rather, I’m trying to become closer to him. I will share with you a text that was sent to me by a mother of one of Donny’s friends who was also in Sha’alvim along with Donny. She received this text from her son right after he had attended Donny’s levaya, and she was kind enough to share it with me. This text defines why I, at the time, didn’t realize I was already transforming to be.

In it the boy writes, “My emunah was faltering. I was at a complete and utter loss regarding why someone as amazing as Donny Morris was taken from us. I simply could not understand why Donny, his father will never take a walk again. I wasn’t able to process why we were never going to see that smile again. I had so many questions and not a single answer. Standing by Donny’s grave watching my friend being buried, my emunah was nowhere to be found. I obligatory started singing Im Eshakachech though I didn’t feel anything. And then I saw Donny’s mother, somebody who literally had her world turned upside down in the past 72 hours. And what was she doing? She wasn’t bawling, gasping for air in between cries. She wasn’t playing face, numb by all the pain. No, she was singing the words to Im Eshakachech with a facial expression expressing one thing and one thing only, emunah.

And after that, she was singing along with all of us ani maamin expressing her belief that HaShem was is, I will always be regardless of what’s going on at that moment. And I saw that from just a few feet away. I did a complete 180. I thought to myself, ‘If someone who is about to begin sitting shiva for her son with complete and unwavering emunah in HaShem who am I to let my emunah crumble. I re-realized the understanding that HaShem truly has a plan.

If Donny’s mom can see that no matter what the situation is, then I should be able to also. So thank you Mrs. Morris for helping me hold on to my emunah.” I clearly had no control over what happened to Donny, but I did and continue to have a choice as to how I move forward from here. Despite my initial way of thinking, these past six months have not always been easy. I wish I could say I never had moments of doubt or anger, but thankfully those thoughts never lasted too long. I actually still ask the same questions. “Why my son? Why was it Donny Morris that was taken?” But now I question it in a very different way. It’s because of the many stories I have been told and learned of, which all indicate that Donny impacted more people than I could have ever imagined both before and after he passed away.

It’s because of Donny, that thousands of people across the world have taken daily mitzvot upon themselves, learn extra blatts of Gemara, his rebbis in Eretz Yisrael and New Jersey talk about him on a constant basis. And his friends, not only learn in his memory, but write divrei Torah each month and correlate many parshiot back to Donny and his impeccable middot, love for learning and love for life, which they are always sharing with me. A complete stranger from Belgium was in such awe of Donny’s daily schedule and his accomplishments that he wrote a book in his memory. It was this daily schedule, his seder hayom that Donny wrote committing himself daily to the most rigorous intense schedule of Torah study, the highest level that he’s strictly adhered to.

I actually bring this original handwritten daily schedule here with me this evening for all of you to see. Aseder hayom that was unbeknownst to us up until after his petirah. A daily schedule that truly demonstrated his determination and commitment to growing Torah and middos, as well as displaying his warm, caring, and sensitivity as can be seen by that what he penciled to do every Thursday evening at 9:30 PM “Call Grandma.”

So typical, Donny’s outpouring of love and respect for his grandparents. There’s this story when Donny arrived in Sha’alvim for the first time, in the beginning of the Chodesh Elul. How he had asked his friend to do him a favor, wake him up every morning to the sound of the shofar’s blast. The friend asked him why after all, most normal people wake up to the sound of a ringing alarm clock to which Donny responded it’s Elul and I want to wake up with thoughts of teshuva. There’s also the thoughtfulness and love of the three shana bet boys in Sha’alvim who composed a song on behalf of Donny, a children’s store and library soon to be inaugurated in Detroit, where my brother-in-law lives. The Torah learning center being built in Sha’alvimas well as sifrei Torah being written and much more all l’zeicher nishmat my beloved Donny.

As a parent, don’t we all daven our children should be kind and treat others with respect and make a difference in this world? We also ask they live a better life than we are and do so in a humble way. Donny was all this and more. He was kind to all that knew him. The countless stories from his friends, from those he barely knew, his teachers, relatives and campers, all described him with such joys and a special demeanor. He literally made each person feel as if they were his best friend. While baruch HaShem, there’re too many amazing stories to share. I will retell the one Rabbi Avi Rosalimsky of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield in an article days after he passed away.

He said, “Last year before COVID when the boys were about to play football in the park, I overheard one of the boys asking Donny, ‘Why do you always smile? Don’t you ever have a bad day?’ Donny responded, ‘Every day that HaShem allows me to wake up and spend time with you guys is a great day.’” With that being said, how can I say HaShem didn’t listen to my tefillot? How can I say I didn’t have an amazing child? If anything, I should ask, “Why me? Why was I lucky enough to have someone as special as Donny? Who am I? And what did I do to earn a son who literally is impacting the world and who is now an integral part of our Jewish history?” It’s clear he has inspired many. Even complete strangers have chosen to name their newborn babies after Donny, who live for Torah, chesed and Am Yisrael, and they want their children to do the same. It’s all this powerful and potent evidence that has shifted my views, feelings and overall outlook on this entire situation.

I know I will never truly understand why Donny was chosen, but I believe wholeheartedly that Donny and the other 44 special neshamas are fulfilling a tafkid. It’s hard to imagine, but I see so clearly HaShem’s hand doing this entire catastrophe. Everyone around Donny that night in Meron passed away besides his friend that was right next to him. I feel so fortunate to have him alive, even if it’s to retell me the excruciating details of that night. But in doing so, I see how HaShem’s plan was meticulously done. Think about it, over 800,000 people were in attendance. 45 people died and only six were not from Israel. And one, just one, represented a broader base of the Jewish world. And that was Donny. No way I can argue that this was a coincidence. And in knowing more details of that night, it’s made even more clear.

My son was not known for taking pictures, let alone sharing them. However, that evening, as they were overheated, trying to push through the crowds to exit Meron, Donny insisted on stopping and having his friend take a picture of him. His friend said the lighting is bad, the picture will not come out and they really needed to keep on moving. But Donny insisted and said, “Please take a picture of me. I really want my father to see how happy I am.” And so his friend took the picture, which Donny sent to my husband. The picture that has gone viral of his smile, the smile of pure innocence and of true simchas hachaim at Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s kever. It’s that smile that has attracted people to him and to be better for him.

Donny and his friends were seconds from the exit but stopped to help an elderly gentleman who fell. In doing so, they too fell and were trampled. Donny, unlike his friend, fell on his back with his heart faced up and his friend fell on his side. Again, not a coincidence. Donny tried to save someone else’s life. So again, how can I say I’m not proud of my son? He did what we teach our children to do, help those in need. And he did the best he could. He surpassed my expectations as a mother, and I’m supposed to be angry with HaShem? I’m sad. And there’s a boy that will forever be there, but angry and upset, I just can’t be. I miss Donny more than imaginable and truly wish he was still physically here with me. However, this is selfish on my part since I, of course believe in olam haba. And we know that one minute there is better than an entire lifetime here. He’s in a great place.

He’s learning in Rabbi Shimon’s beis midrash. More so, we learn that if one passes away under the age of 20, they’re not judged and go straight to shamayim with a clean slate. Donny was 19 years old. He had a ticket straight to the kisei hakavod. I can picture him with an adorable smile, learning and dancing with all the other wonderful people we know and have learned about throughout Tanach. Speaking of which, until this day, I’m really unsure as to how we were zoche to have Donny buried in Har HaZeisim, literally facing the gates entering into the Beis HaMikdash in an area which is nearly impossible to be granted a burial plot.

He’s surrounded by leviim, Rav Kook and other great gedolim. Why was Donny granted such a holy spot? I truly believe that it can be attributed to our unwavering emunah in the power of tefillah and to our sincere belief and no tefillah, especially when accompanied by tears is ever wasted. Who will or can ever possibly forget that horrific Thursday evening, Lag B’Omer eve? As well as that entire Friday, the most heartfelt outpouring of tefillah from an entire united Am Yisrael across the globe for the missing, the injured, and for those who had passed on as well as for their grieving families. It was the power of those tefillah and our belief that no tefillah ever goes wasted that secured my Donny such a holy gravesite.

I don’t know this for sure, but what I do know with great certainty is that HaShem has taken good care of Donny and that I need to thank Him for the 19 years I had with him. If HaShem would’ve come to me 19 years ago and told me he can give me a gift, a son who would impact this world and influence people to do better, but he would need to be taken back after 19 years, would I honestly have told HaShem, no? I’ve thought extensively over this question. And I can’t imagine not wanting to partner with HaShem in my being the mother of Donny and sharing his everlasting impact in this world. Of course, I wish I knew of HaShem’splan, but in truth, if I was pre-warned, then Donny wouldn’t have been who he was and I wouldn’t be where I am today.

David Bashevkin:
As Donny was being buried. And you hear the song and the people sing mimkomcha malkeinu sophia, from Your place, God, that You appear that You are manifest, hearing that song as they were burying a person who died far too young under such tragic circumstances, really just totally reframed this prayer that I’ve associated for almost my entire life with Shabbos. But when you take a second look at it, you see all of the words that we normally associate with mourning, mimkomcha malkeinu sophia from your place in many ways reminds of hamakom yenachem, the place that we refer to God as the place when we comfort others.

And I think there’s something very moving and very powerful in this prayer. And the fact that they’re singing this as they were burying Donny. And it reminded me of many ways of the very appearance of where we discuss the very terms and ideas related to mourning in the Talmud. Most of the laws of mourning the Talmud appear in tractate Moed Katan, which talks about Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days that are wedged between the first days of Yom Tov and the second days of Yom Tov.

And all of a sudden in the middle of the tractate, we digress from the laws of Chol HaMoed, and we talk about all of the laws of mourning. And many people have questioned why all of a sudden are we talking over here in this track tape, that’s talking about this joyful, fun time that we associate with trips to the Bronx Zoo and Six Flags Great Adventures. Why are we talking about mourning all of a sudden? There’s a project that I’ve been involved in since the beginning of Daf Yomi, where at the end of every tractate, I actually write a brief essay examining the themes of each masechta, the themes of each tractate. And it was on tractate Moed Katan that I discussed why morning in particular appears within this tractate in the context of Chol HaMoed, are we talking about the laws of aveilus and mourning?

And it’s an idea that was inspired by a rav known as the Kozhiglover, Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frumer, who explains and it’s a little bit of my own interpretation, but he really inspired this idea, is that the reason why the laws of mourning appear in the laws of Chol HaMoed is because life itself is one long Chol HaMoed, because we begin life, so to speak, connected to God, unified with God. And we come out into this world, into this liminal state where holiness and all and unholiness, where sacred and profane are all mixed together within our lifetime. And ultimately, at the end of our lives, we return back to God and have those second days of Yom Tov, so to speak. And like Yom Tov itself, that is book ended by these unified experiences of Yom Tov. And in between we have these strange period of Chol HaMoed where holiness and the mundane are all mixed together.

In many ways, our life itself mirrors this parallel where our life, so to speak, can be seen as a Chol HaMoed. I concluded the essay with an idea that I think relates to everything that we’ve been discussing about loss. Mourning is upheaval, liminality, instability, caught between worlds, mourners confront the ultimate absence and can’t help but feel a little less permanent. But if a family is the vehicle through which we form our identity, who are we when they are gone? The very customs of mourning address this head on. During a shiva call, there is accustomed to say the Hebrew phrase, hamakom yenachem eschem b’soch shaar avlei Tzion v’Yerushala. yimMay God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. We slowly bring the mourner out from the silence of isolation into the communal comfort of language. God, in this passage, is referred to as HaMakom, literally meaning the place. We remind mourners that even within the instability of liminality, still the stability of place identity, we remain connected to the eternal place, namely God.

I know it feels like you are no longer you without a loved one, we seem to be implicitly saying, but our collective identity is couched in something that can never be entirely lost. And following the shiva period, mourners say kaddish. Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei rabbah. May His name grow exalted and sanctified. Staring at the Chol HaMoed that is our lives, we insist that even gazing at our own fragility, our chol, we can still grasp eternity. Our Moed from within our liminality. Through kaddish, explains Rabbi Soloveitchik. We hold defiance at death and its fiendish conspiracy against man. Kaddish is the declaration that no matter how powerful death is, not withstanding the ugly end of man, however terrifying the grave is, however nonsensical and absurd everything appears, no matter how black one’s despair is and how noisy and unfair life is, we declare and profess publicly and solemnly that we’re not giving up, that we are not surrendering. B’alma divra chirusei, in the world that God created, we will not go gently into the darkness of silence.

V’yamlich malchusei b’yomeichun u’vyomeichun that made God reign in our lifetime and days, even in liminality, we can still sense divinity. U’vichayei d’chol beis Yisrael. And in the lifetime of the entire family of Israel, the Jewish people, we will always remain firmly rooted in the internal, v’imru amen, and I respond amen. And it’s those ideas that echo in that prayer, in that song, that as they were burying Donny, they saying the words Mimkomcha, the same description that we have from Hamakom.

They affirm that even in absence, we can still long and through our anticipation, through our longing and yearning, forge a presence. Ki mechakim anachnu lach. Masai timloch b’Tzion, we wait, we yearn, we’re looking for that stability that is so often lost in the liminality of our lives. And finally, like the words ofkaddish, tisgadal v’siskadash. No matter how powerful death is, no matter how painful the absence may be, we declare and profess publicly in the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, we declare and profess publicly and solemnly that we’re not giving up, that we are not surrendering. Tisgadal v’siskadash b’soch Yerushalayim Ircha. Becomes sanctified and uplifted within your city, Jerusalem. L’dor v’dor u’lenetzach netzachim. From generation to generation and for all eternity. So thank you so much for listening. This episode was sponsored by my dearest friend, Victor and Jessica Kagan, in memory of his mother Rochel Minda bas Nosson Nota, and his brother who I knew well and missed dearly, Naftali ben Chaim Shraga Feivel. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious my friends.