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Jews in Brooklyn and Houston Struggle With Tragedies

The two tragedies occurred 1,500 miles apart and in much different circumstances, but both united a community in shock, horror and grief.

In New York, the abduction and gruesome murder last week of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky while walking home from summer day camp in Borough Park, Brooklyn, left the neighborhood’s tight-knit Chasidic community reeling from the revelation that the crime was committed by an apparently observant Jew.

In Houston, catastrophe struck when five members of a Jewish family driving home from a vacation in Colorado over the July 4 weekend collided head on with another vehicle.

The parents, Josh and Robin Berry, 41 and 40, were killed instantly. Two of the children in the back seat, Peter, 9, and Aaron, 8, suffered severe spinal injuries and are paralyzed from the waist down. One child, Willa, 6, escaped with broken bones and was able to speak when paramedics arrived. A woman in the passenger seat of the other car, Colleen Doyle, also died.

“The tragedy is unprecedented in our synagogue, in our community,” said Rabbi Brian Strauss of Congregation Beth Yushurun, the Conservative synagogue where the Berrys were members. “In Houston, the Berrys were beloved.”

Robin had worked as family life coordinator at Beth Yushurun, and Josh had participated in men’s club programs. The Berry children attend Jewish day schools.

In both Houston and New York, the tragedies rippled far beyond the Jewish community.

In New York, coverage of Leiby’s disappearance – on the first day his parents let him walk home alone – and murder dominated headlines for days. This week, the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, visited the Kletzky home to pay a shiva call.

In Houston, the Jewish community’s grief was joined by a burst of activity to make sure the Berry children are well cared for. Friends established a trust fund for the kids, local businesses held fundraisers, TV stars have sent their condolences and professional athletes have stopped by the children’s hospital beds.

Baseball all-star Hunter Pence of the Houston Astros showed up, and Wilson Chandler of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and Kyle Lowry of the Houston Rockets also came to boost the children’s spirits with a gift and jokes. Three players from Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo visited, too. An upcoming Dynamo match, already designated to celebrate Jewish Heritage night, will donate $10 of every ticket sold to the Berry trust.

“It made me really happy,” Aaron Berry said after the visit by Chandler and Lowry, the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston reported. “I got to meet Kyle Lowry of the Rockets and his friend Wilson from the Nuggets!”

Reality TV stars Kourtney Kardashian and Brooke Burke expressed their condolences online, and Kardashian encouraged followers to donate to the trust fund.

At least $46,000 has been raised through dog washes, lemonade stands and ice cream sales organized by local children and their parents, according to Jewish Herald-Voice reporter Michael Duke, who has been covering the story. That amount does not include donations to the trust fund or fundraisers by local businesses.

“The response has given a glimmer of hope,” Strauss said. “If they walk again, it will be with the help of the community.”

While the community mobilized for the children, friends and family mourned the Berry parents. More than 1,200 mourners turned out for their funerals, and area Jews have organized Shabbat candle lightings in their memory and shifts to say Kaddish and pray for the surviving children.

In New York, community members also had mobilized to pray for Leiby, whose disappearance July 11 triggered a frantic two-day search. Upon hearing the news that the boy had been slain – the alleged killer, Levi Aron, led police investigators to dismembered body parts in his freezer and in a trash bin a couple of miles away – disbelief took hold. Community members struggled to process a murder apparently committed by a trusted community member.

A Borough Park resident named Ephraim told The New York Jewish Week that the incident was a “a double murder – one was the child, and the other is the image of a Jew.”

Aron entered a guilty plea last week to second-degree murder charges.

At the funeral, which drew thousands of mourners, Leiby’s father, Nachman Kletzky, said in Yiddish, “At least we had the merit of having him for nine years.”

The question now facing both communities is what comes next.

In Jewish Brooklyn and beyond, parents debated the appropriate age to let a child walk around on his own. Orthodox parents talked about the challenge of imparting to children a healthy suspicion of strangers, even someone wearing a kipah, without casting a pall of fear over their kids’ interactions.

In Houston, an uncle of the Berry children, Adam Berry, was preparing to move Peter and Aaron to Chicago for at least two months to receive specialized treatment. Another uncle, Matt Berry, has become their legal guardian.

At the children’s school in Houston, parents and counselors have been talking to students about the incident.

“When Peter and Aaron do come back, we will treat them as we always did,” Strauss said. “But kids are having a hard time with it. I think they’ll have a harder time when they see them for the first time. “

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