A Florida driver under investigation for the death of a Jewish woman on her way to Yom Kippur services has a long record of driving infractions — and was behind the wheel during a 2009 crash that killed a 6-year-old girl.
Esther Benzohar Ohayon, 57, and her daughter Orly, 16, were crossing a highway intersection in Jacksonville, Florida, on Friday night on their way to Etz Chaim synagogue when they were struck by a Toyota Camry. Esther Ohayon died on the spot, while her daughter was transported to University of Florida Health hospital where she is in critical care. Her condition is now reportedly stable.
Michael Fortunato, the driver, was detained after Friday night’s accident but subsequently released. Florida Highway Patrol officers are still attempting to determine if the accident was caused by alcohol. According to Sgt. Dylan Bryan of the Florida Highway Patrol, Fortunato had a green light.
But as Florida’s First Coast News reported, this is not Fortunato’s first deadly traffic accident. In December 2009, 6-year-old Kaitlyn Springer died while crossing at a crosswalk with her mother and little brother. Though Fortunato was not charged by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in the incident, his arrest record lists a number of traffic violations dating back to 1996.
In 2006, his license was reportedly suspended, and he has been cited for speeding, traffic light violations and reckless driving in the past. His most recent ticket was for running a red light in April of this year.
According to Rabbi Yaakov Fisch of Etz Chaim Synagogue, this isn’t the first time that particular intersection has been cause for concern, particularly for Orthodox Jews who cannot press the crosswalk button during Shabbat or Jewish holidays. There have been “very harrowing and near misses over the years,” he told The Florida Times Union.
Though Fisch reportedly reached out to Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville roughly three months ago about whether the intersection could be set for longer intervals on Shabbat, his request went unanswered.
“I hate to say that I never even got a reply from Mr. McBurney,” Fisch told the Times Union. “Not even a ‘I’m working on it’ or anything
Esther Ohayon was a pre-school teacher at Jacksonville Jewish Center’s Galinsky Academy, from which her daughter Orly also graduated. Her body was returned to Israel for burial.
On Sunday, Orly’s cousin, Karen Brown, launched a FundRazr campaign to help with her treatment. As of today, she has raised over $57,000.
In a statement posted to the school’s blog, Dr. John Mitzmacher, head of Galinsky Academy, expressed his sorrow at the loss.
“It is in such times as this, that I feel blessed to work and live in a community such as ours,” he wrote. “The collective strength and love it possesses will be relied upon by us all as we do only what we can – to ensure Esther’s memory everlasting, to pray for Orly’s recovery, and to finally learn the lesson of life’s fragility and ensure we treat each day as if it could be our last.”
In an effort to provide some comfort for her surviving daughter Orly during the Sukkot holiday, Mitzmacher called for students to build a sukkah in front of hospital where she is still undergoing treatment.
“On a rainy Wednesday in Jacksonville, Florida, we will build a sukkah for Orly that she will never dwell in,” Mitzmacher wrote in the blog post. “But by doing so we will honor the memory of Esther and demonstrate our love for Orly. I pray this Sukkot that even as our joy is tinged with sadness, that we take the time to celebrate this happiest of holidays with loved ones and friends and as a result of a tragedy unfathomable, to finally learn the lessons of life’s fragility.”
Anne Cohen is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not looking for the secret Jewish history of Voodoo in New Orleans, or making lists about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she writes for The Assimilator. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. magazine concentration in 2012.