Residents of two Israeli cities came together for a Torah dedication ceremony honoring the life of a young man who in 2001, gave the ultimate sacrifice in saving the life of a drowning boy.

The festivities began in the Jerusalem foothills city of Beit Shemesh, where locals Michael and Chaya Khelifi first decided more than a year ago to commission a Torah scroll in memory of their son Yonatan Yitzchak Khelifi. The son perished in two weeks short of his 19th birthday as he rescued a camper at the Chabad-Lubavitch run Camp Gan Israel in Geneva. In Beit Shemesh, people lined up to write one of the last letters in the Torah scroll before they took the celebration to the Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch yeshiva in the central Israeli town of Elad.

Chaya Khelifi, who moved to Israel with her husband and three other children from their native France four years ago, explained that the Torah would have been donated to an institution a bit closer to their home, but their local synagogue already had several of the holy scrolls. A chance call months ago to Rabbi Avraham Asher Belinov, director of the Tomchei Tmimim yeshiva, provided the family with a fitting recipient of the Torah.

The mother had phoned the rabbi to ask if she could pick up her son early that day to take him to a Chasidic gathering for French speakers in Jerusalem. Belinov, who was not aware of the Khelifis’ wish to donate a Torah scroll, asked the woman if she could make inquiries of some of the other French expatriates who might be willing to contribute to a Torah fund.

More than 250 people turned out for the celebrations, which began in Beit Shemesh and ended at the Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch yeshiva in Elad.
More than 250 people turned out for the celebrations, which began in Beit Shemesh and ended at the Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch yeshiva in Elad.

Khelifi said that she made up her mind right on the spot, and that in retrospect, she could think of no better place for the Torah than the yeshiva.

“My son gave his life for the life of that boy,” she said. “He was a real Chasid, who really loved children. He would give classes and make Shabbat parties for the children all the time.”

In Elad, community members gathered at the home of one of the yeshiva instructors to fill in the last 60 letters of the Torah scroll. They then danced through the streets in a grand parade leading to the yeshiva.

At the yeshiva, the celebrants sat down to a festive meal that also coincided with the completion of the almost yearly cycle of studying Maimonides’ legal code, the Mishneh Torah.

All told, more than 250 people joined in the celebrations in both municipalities.

“This was important to the yeshiva,” said Belinov. “A Torah needs to brought where students are learning, so that it can be brought into their hearts.”

Khelifi said that the Torah dedication was an emotional time for her.

“I didn’t want to cry in front of the family,” she said. “It was a miracle how much happiness there was. It was even more than a wedding.”