Twenty years ago, on July 31, 2002, our cousin Marla Bennett was killed in a suicide bombing at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She had just sat down to lunch following her Hebrew ulpan studies when a terrorist detonated the bomb he had planted in a backpack at an adjoining table. Seven people were killed in the blast. Marla was just 24.
She and our family became very close during the years she lived in Israel. Telling our children about her death was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do.
I wanted to write something to commemorate Marla’s death on this grim milestone.
I could have written about her funeral, which attracted 1,500 people in San Diego. Or the coverage in the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage, which ran for 13 painful pages.
I could have written about how Marla and her fiancé, Michael, fell in love at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, just as my wife, Jody, and I did many years earlier.
But perhaps the most powerful part of Marla’s story is not the past but the future – specifically, all the babies who have been named after her. Linda Bennett, Marla’s mother, told me that there have been at least 25 children with some version of an “M” name.
MARLA WAS Amanda Pogany’s best friend in Israel (although there were many who claimed Marla as their best friend). “It was a rare kind of friendship; the kind that, as soon as you meet, you can’t actually remember what your life was like before,” Amanda recalled.
When Amanda and her husband Aaron’s first daughter was born, they named her Meira (Maisie in English). “Meira means one who illuminates, a perfect reflection of who Marla was,” Amanda told me.
Eileen Katz named her daughter Ellie Miriam. (Marla’s Hebrew name was Miriam.) Marla and Eileen knew each other from the USY youth movement. Like Marla, seven-year-old Miriam today “is kind, empathetic, an eager participant and a good friend to everyone,” Eileen said.
Rebecca Birken Yussman lived with Marla in the “Berkeley Bayit” in the late 1990s and also named her daughter Miriam after Marla, “one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met.” As for her own Miriam, “if she’s your friend, she’ll do anything for you – just like Marla.”
Adam Arenson knew Marla from as far back as preschool. Adam referred to Marla as “a professional friend,” someone who was cherished “because you know she would take your call or respond to your email, whenever, wherever.”
Adam named his daughter Maddie, which is derived from migdal or tower. “Marla was a towering presence among all who knew her – for her openness, her dedication, her sense of loving life.”
Barri Worth Girvan’s four-year-old daughter, Mila, was named after Marla, who was Barri’s camp counselor and was “like an older sister to me, someone I always looked up to, so much so that one summer I earned the nickname M.I.T. (Marla in Training),” Barri joked. “Marla had a radiant smile [and Mila] already lights up our lives – and my camera photo stream!”
Jessica Rosenberg shared with me about her 14-year-old daughter, Molly, who, like Marla, “is intellectually curious, conscientious, generous and silly. She also makes a pretty excellent rainbow challah – much like Marla did!”
Jessica reminded me that Marla’s email address was [email protected], a fitting address given that she was “always up, always positive and with a laugh that was contagious.”
Marla’s namesakes are not all girls.
Deborah Bock Schuldenfrei wrote to tell me that her oldest son, Heshel Max, was named after Marla. What reminds Deborah most about Marla is that Max “is so remarkably kind. He cares so much about his cosmic connection to Mar and internalizes the blessing of her name in his own identity.”
Justin Radell also has a son named Max. Justin and Marla met during Marla’s freshman year.
“We would walk to Hillel together on Friday nights,” Justin said. “I became more connected to Judaism during college, and Marla was a big part of that.”
The last person I spoke with for this piece was Maytal Lefkowitz – not a parent but one of the children who was named after Marla by her parents, Emma and Eric.
Bearing an “M” name “comes with huge responsibility,” Maytal told me. “I was named after someone who had tremendous impact on so many people’s lives.”
There were four pillars to Marla’s life, Maytal explained. “Marla believed in Israel. She believed in education. She believed in the Jewish people. And she believed in her friends and family.”
Maytal has lived up to Marla’s ideals in many ways. She is the Far West regional social action and tikkun olam vice president for her USY chapter. She regularly volunteers at a local food bank and, like Marla, is committed to Jewish summer camp – indeed, when we spoke, Maytal was in Israel at the Ramah summer seminar.
BEFORE SHE died, Marla wrote an essay for the Avi Chai Foundation.
“I’ve been living in Israel for over a year and a half now, and my favorite thing to do here is to go to the grocery store,” she shared. “I know, not the most exciting response, but going shopping, as well as picking up my dry cleaning, standing in long lines at the bank, and waiting with the hungry mob at the bakery, means that I live here. I am not a tourist. I deal with Israel and all of its complexities, confusion, joy and pain every single day. And I love it.”
“I know, not the most exciting response, but going shopping, as well as picking up my dry cleaning, standing in long lines at the bank, and waiting with the hungry mob at the bakery, means that I live here. I am not a tourist. I deal with Israel and all of its complexities, confusion, joy and pain every single day. And I love it.”
We love you, Marla. We will never forget you – and neither will all the Miriams, Maytals, Meiras, Maddies and Maxes who carry on your legacy.
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com
This content was originally published here.