Anglo Community in Jerusalem Struck by Tragedy

by Brian on June 11, 2010

in A Parent in Israel,In the News

Lee Vatkin, z'l

Lee Vatkin, z'l

The text message came in early Tuesday morning: “There are no words to express our thoughts and feelings at this time. Our darling daughter Lee Gabriella’s funeral will be at 11:15 PM tonight.”

By this time, of course, we already knew – half of Anglo Jerusalem did, whether by email, phone calls, or Facebook status updates. Our friend Fiona Kantor’s 16-year-old daughter, Lee Vatkin, along with her 21-year-old boyfriend, had died of a drug overdose some hours before.

The late hour of her burial – funerals usually take place the same day as the death in Israel – was to allow an autopsy which according to news reports, indicated the two had taken methadone that was either “dirty” or possibly laced (intentionally or accidentally – it’s not sure) with poison.

The world of English-speaking liberal/religious southern Jerusalem consists of multiple overlapping circles. Lee’s mother, Fiona, is at the center of many of them – a go-getter who had, among many activities in a vivacious career, organized Anglo support for Nir Barkat’s mayoral campaign (she was persuasive enough to get me to volunteer).

I didn’t know Lee, but our daughter Merav, also 16, did – she had gone to elementary school with her and even attended Lee’s bat mitzvah – although they had fallen out of touch since then. The Israeli tabloid Yediot Ahronot – which devoted a full two-page spread to the tragedy (unfortunately intended less to report than titillate and spur sales) – provided some additional details into Lee’s life.

Lee was a smart and talented kid: she had attended the prestigious L’yada high school in Jerusalem but later moved to the Ankori school which specializes in preparing young people for their matriculation exams. She also began hanging out in a tough neighborhood near Zion Square downtown that attracts teens and young adults who don’t fit into “the system.”

The story in Yediot focused on the “great love” between Lee and her Russian-born boyfriend, an only child from a troubled background who was being raised by his father and grandmother (his mother stayed back in Russia). The boyfriend, apparently, had an extensive criminal record.

While Lee’s family rightly refused to be interviewed for the article, Yediot nevertheless provided scandalous details about how the couple had been found lying together on a mattress in the apartment they shared in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood. The paramedics pronounced them dead on the spot.

If you go looking for Lee’s Facebook profile, you won’t find it – it was taken down after her death (by who – how does that work?) In its place is a memorial page with just under 700 members as of this writing.

Hundreds of people attended the funeral despite the late hour. The combined communities couldn’t have been more diverse. There were Lee’s modern religious parents and their friends, mixed with Lee’s hevrah of the downtown distraught, many pierced in multiple places, some with hair dyed in surreal shades of phosphorescent purple and orange.

I have been to many funerals in this Jerusalem hall, but I had never seen crying like this. When Fiona, Lee’s mother, spoke, in a shudderingly broken voice, she hinted that she knew something was coming – that she “was losing her daughter.” She just didn’t know it would be this, she said.

It’s been several days now,  but I’m still shaking – every parent was, thinking about their own beloved teenagers and what dangers might yet be lurking. What causes a good girl from a family living in a “quality” neighborhood (as the Yediot article intoned) to drop so far down?

None of us at the funeral knew. But maybe that wasn’t the point. Fiona articulated it best in the final words of her eulogy. “Hold onto your kids,” she said. “They’re the most precious thing you have.”

Hold on. Hold on tight.


This story appeared earlier this week on the Israelity blog.

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