'We'll spend the rest of our lives dealing with Yoni Jesner's death'

Yoni Jesner was killed 10 years ago. His mother describes her attempts to come to terms with tragedy

By Jennifer Lipman, September 18, 2012
Promising communal leader Yoni Jesner died in a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv. His mother, Marsha Gladstone has worked to keep his name alive

Promising communal leader Yoni Jesner died in a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv. His mother, Marsha Gladstone has worked to keep his name alive

Marsha Gladstone has welcomed 13 new grandchildren into her life since September 19 2002, among them a boy called Yoni and another called Yonatan.

Her only wish is that their namesake, her son, could be alive to meet them.

A decade after he was killed in a suicide bombing opposite the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, Yoni Jesner's name lives on; in the memories of those who knew him, in the youth groups that run programmes as part of his legacy, and in the work of the foundation created by his family.

Growing up in Glasgow, Yoni, who was named in honour of Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli soldier killed during the raid on Entebbe, was active in Jewish and Zionist organisations. At just 19 he had already forged a reputation as one of the most promising communal leaders of his generation.

A year before he died, he was awarded the annual Edward and Adele Wolfson youth award, for outstanding contribution to Glasgow youth. For those who knew him, there was no doubt that Yoni was part of the future of British Jewry.

When I meet Yoni's friends and they're all getting on with their lives — that's hard

But it was not to be. Having spent his gap year studying at yeshivah in Israel, he was in Tel Aviv, looking forward to returning home and starting a degree in medicine at University College London, when tragedy struck.

At lunchtime on a Thursday morning, as Israel prepared to celebrate Succot, Yoni boarded the number four bus on Allenby Street with his cousin Gideon Black. Unbeknown to them, so did a Hamas terrorist, who proceeded to detonate a bomb that killed six and wounded 70. Yoni was, and remains, the only British Jewish victim of a suicide bombing in Israel.

Just days after her son died, Gladstone found herself sitting in a hotel room, reading a list of 66 thoughtful sayings about life that he had compiled during his year in Israel.

"We felt that we must do something to continue Yoni and to continue what he had to do," she says. "We felt that we couldn't just let his energy in the world finish at that point."

Ten years down the line, the Yoni Jesner Foundation, of which Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks is the patron, hosts an annual awards ceremony, honoring Jewish teenagers for their voluntary service. It also runs a scholarship programme that aims to nurture "other young people like Yoni".

"They've got to have shown that they are exhibiting qualities of excellence and care in communal work - the qualities that Yoni exhibited," says Gladstone. "The idea is that they come back and are very active in the community over the years, and many of them have been."

The foundation is "a massive project", she adds. "It's been a long time and I do feel that we should be doing a lot more, but life gets in between."

Gladstone gave up her teaching job six months ago in the hope of spending more time on building Yoni's legacy, and has a range of ideas, including opening the awards to a wider range of age-groups and locations. She is desperate for someone to volunteer to help build more of a presence on social media.

One of the most compelling aspects of Yoni's story is, of course, the contribution he made after his death. One of his kidneys was used to save the life of a Palestinian girl, while other of his organs were used to save the lives of Israeli men. Yasmin Abu-Rumeileh, who received his kidney, is now 17. Gladstone knows she would not be alive without Yoni's donation.

The families were briefly reunited for a 2004 documentary, but contact has not been easy since. "

We've tried for years to get in touch with her and her family but it's really been impossible. This year I got an OK for a meeting, so I'm hoping that that's going to happen. But then, you have to let people get on with their lives as well."

Events run by the foundation have become fixtures in the Jewish calendar. "When I walked into the hall where we held this year's awards there was a huge backdrop of Yoni, and the place was packed. Some of the kids got up and said: 'For my Yoni Jesner award, I did...' and it's so funny and so sweet. It makes me feel that it's worth all the effort to keep things going, because sometimes you get a bit despondent. It's been 10 years - have we done enough? Nothing seems to be enough and then sometimes I think: 'Well, it's not going to change anything anyway'."

In some ways, she says, her time with Yoni seems like another lifetime. "It's so long ago since I've seen him, and then in other ways it feels like no time has passed. When I look at my grandchildren, that's when it really hits me. It's how much he has missed over the years; he doesn't know these little tots, his nieces and nephews. When I look at them I see so much time has gone by.

"I think we'll spend the rest of our lives trying to come to terms with it. I try to live alongside this loss and often I think: 'Well, if Yoni was here, what would he be doing now, and what would he say about this, and what would he think about that?'."

Family celebrations - festivals, weddings and births - are particularly difficult, says Gladstone. "When I meet his friends and everybody's getting on with their lives and they are married and they have children - that's hard, that will always be hard. But you have to learn to live with it."

The family will mark 10 years since Yoni's death with a ceremony at his graveside in Jerusalem. Yoni's brother, Jared, made aliyah two years ago.

"I love going back to Israel, I love being there," says Gladstone. "It's hard to think that the country has moved on from what happened with Yoni. But thank God it has - it was a terrible time and there were so many people killed.

"It's a cruel thing but people move on and that's the way it should be. Hopefully we'll never have such a terrible time again." Every time she reads about other victims of terror in Israel, the memories come flooding back. "You can't feel everybody's pain but I know what they're talking about," she says.

All she can do is keep her son's name in the public eye. "I think he'd be known in the community now," she says. "When somebody leaves this world they can't do anything any more, so the more we can do keep his energy alive and keep his name remembered, the better. If it does influence people, it's a wonderful thing. He had so much more to do and we have to try our best to do it for him."

Last updated: 11:54am, September 20 2012