Thursday, July 14, 2011

Leiby Kletzky, May His Memory Be for a Blessing

Leiby Kletzky won't be home for Shabbat dinner tomorrow night. He won't be home next week, or the week after, or for any Shabbat or holiday or regular dinner ever again. Leiby was 8 years old when his parents let him walk alone, for the first time, from his summer camp in Brooklyn, NY to meet them a few blocks away on Monday. He took a wrong turn and asked a stranger for directions. Leiby Kletzky is dead, and that stranger has reportedly confessed to killing him and dismembering his body.

There are news stories that upset me. There are news stories that scare me. There are news stories that make me angry. There are very few news stories that make me physically ill. This is one of them.

I've been trying to identify just what it is that has made me feel like I was going to throw up since the moment the details of this case came to light. I've been doing crisis work for a long time, and I've heard some pretty awful stories. The murder of children is always particularly poignant, but this one is different.

I think there are two aspects to this case that cause me to feel that connection in a particularly personal way. The first is that, this week, I sent my own 6 year-old son on a plane as an unaccompanied minor to visit his grandparents in Washington, DC for the first time. We've done this countless times with his oldest sister and it has always gone smoothly.

We are careful, or so we think. We make sure not just that the airline has the information they need to keep the kids safe, but that they know what to do if someone isn't there to pick them up, if their seatmate is bothering them or making them uncomfortable, if they get lost or if someone other than an airline employee offers to take them someplace. We trust that these precautions, coupled with the help of the airline and the common sense of our kids, will keep them safe.  Leiby Kletzky's parents thought there wasn't much that could go wrong, too. They were a few blocks away. He would walk right to them. What could go wrong?

Today, when I went to pick my son up at the airport, I got stuck in traffic. His plane arrived early. The line to get a security pass to go to the gate was slow. The security line was long. I knew that he was off the plane, and I found myself in a panic. We had a plan for this. All he had to do was stay with the airline employees. But what if he didn't?

One of the deeply held beliefs about the world that we have as parents is that we can keep our children safe. My kids will tell you that I often say that that is my most important job as a mom -- keeping them safe. Leiby's parents were doing that job as best they could with the information they had. And it wasn't enough. That shakes my own belief in a world that will work the way it should.

The other poignant piece of this case for me was that it occurred in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. I am not Hasidic and have never been. I lived for a while in a heavily Jewish section of Pittsburgh, PA that had many Hasidim, and as a Jew I feel a connection to that part of my roots. Hasidic communities are famously close knit. You can see this in the sheer number of people who turned out within an hour or two after Leiby went missing to look for him. It may be Brooklyn, NY, but it is a small shtetl in many ways. This isn't supposed to happen. The fact that the accused killer is also an Orthodox Jew, albeit not a Hasid, makes it even worse.

Of course, no one should do this to anyone else. The fact that Leiby was Jewish or Hasidic doesn't make his death any more or less important than that of any other child. But just as it would affect me if it happened on my street more than two miles away, I feel that sense of shock not just that a child was murdered, but that it happened in "our" community. Reading the comments on various blogs around the net, I realize that there is a cultural context to this case that I can't put into words and the commenters clearly don't get. This perpetrator was able to do what he did to this boy precisely because they had a connection and a similar understanding of what their community was like. This didn't just violate the law and human decency, it violated a communal sense of trust. I can't explain it any better than that.

Leiby won't be home for Shabbat tomorrow. In Judaism, we say that the memory of the righteous is for a blessing. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion.

Thanks to frequent Quarterbacker Jim for suggesting that my take on this might be a little different than others and that I should blog about it. I needed the noodge.


ajlounyinjurylaw said...

Leiby, you didn’t make it to moon in this lifetime, but with your outstretched arm, you’ve slipped the surly bonds of earth and gone to touch the face of God. RIP

Jim Sailer said...

Thanks for writing about this, Naomi. I put this together with your post about Norway, and think about how we so deeply want the perpetrators to be "other" than us. The closer they are to us, the more of a betrayal it seems. For those of us with 8 year old kids in Brooklyn, this takes on another personal dimension, too. Thanks for helping to give some perspective on it.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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