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“She Did it Because She Believed”

Sara Duker's college roommates celebrate her short life

Sara Duker died on Feb. 25, 1996, victim of a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem. An energetic and dedicated Jew, feminist, and environmentalist, Sara will always be remembered for her mischievous eyes, her sense of adventure, and her dedication to egalitarian, halachic Judaism.

At Barnard College, where Sara and I were roommates, Sara maintained a heavy course load, had excellent grades, enjoyed a thriving social life—and rose every morning at 7A.M. to daven. Sarah’s father, who had been her spiritual pillar, died when she was 13, and she chose to continue his legacy by living a religious life. I, on the other hand, was raised by a strict father who made religious life an obligation. I felt that I was practicing Judaism for him and not for myself. When Sara and I lived together, I would get up at 8:30A.M. for my 9A.M. class only to find her with her favorite, colorful tallit from Israel covering her shoulders as she was ending her tefillah with the Aleimi. She changed my outlook on Judaism.

Sara was studying about the environment at Hebrew University in Jerusalem when she died. On Feb. 22, 1996, my birthday, she e-mailed me and wrote how happy she was in the land she loved so much. She wrote that she was starting up a women’s environmental network in Israel and was trying to make sure that it continued to thrive after she returned to the United States.

Three days later, Sara was killed. This fall, the Jewish Theological Seminar dedicated a new beit midrash (study hall) to her and her fiance. Matt Eisenfeld, a JTS student who died alongside her in the bombing. The room is open to all those who wish to study—Talmud, Torah, Midrash—and is staffed by a rabbi to guide anyone who stops by. The following is my own memorial to her: a conversation I had with Shira Srutman, another of Sara’s college roommates, one month after her death.

SS: Sara was always something of an enigma. Sara is still the only halachic, egalitarian Jewish woman I ever knew who was not planning to become a rabbi. I was always so impressed by that. She did things not because she wanted anyone else to look and say “wow” but because she wanted to.

SY: She had so many wonderful qualities. . . . Everywhere Sara went, men fell in love with her. You told her, and she just laughed, kind of knowing that she had this power, flattered, but. . .

SS: I remember that each week, at Friday night services, Sara would get up and offer home hospitality to any who wanted a place for Shabbat dinner. And she would ask people already hosting a dinner to take one more person in. And I always felt a little ashamed if I didn’t want to host that week, ashamed in front of Sara, who was so obviously generous.

SY: It just kind of makes me feel as if, what is it all worth if someone like this could die? But I know that Sara would not have wanted any of us to feel that way. Her friends talked about all of the things that Sara would have wanted. She would have wanted us to continue supporting the peace process.

SS: I’m just amazed at how life goes on. I’m amazed that I’m back at work, that everyone’s back at work, that things are back to normal—save the stabbing pain in my heart that I get whenever I think of Sara. I’m amazed that she’s really dead.

There’s a part of me that keeps thinking back to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, when Tom Sawyer watches his own funeral and then surfaces, alive. I would not be surprised if sometime in the future I received a note, a message, or a visit from Sara.