Etan Flatow says that to memorialize his sister, Alisa, he tries “to be the best that I can be.”
June 19, 2008
Etan Flatow’s life, and his identity, changed dramatically on April 9, 1995, just before his 12th birthday.
That’s when an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber drove a van loaded with explosives into a public bus, killing his 20-year-old sister Alisa and seven young Israeli soldiers who were en route to the former Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip, where she had volunteered teaching children.
From that night on, Etan was not just a West Orange kid attending Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, but the brother of a victim of a high-profile terrorist attack in Israel, the first American tourist killed in a suicide bombing. News vans converged on his home, thousands attended his sister’s funeral, and Alisa Flatow became a household name.
Since then, that name has remained in the public consciousness, thanks to a memorial scholarship for study in Israel established by her parents, Rosalyn and Stephen Flatow, and their family and a long-fought and ultimately successful lawsuit against the nation of Iran won by Stephen Flatow, an attorney.
Etan takes pride in his sister’s legacy, but admits it wasn’t always easy for him to be known as “the brother of Alisa Flatow.”
Now Etan, 25, has made a name for himself in his own right by joining the Israeli army that protects the people of Israel whom Alisa loved so much.
“In high school and college, I was always the guy whose sister was killed in a terrorist attack,” Etan said, in uniform in an interview at a Jerusalem cafe. “All I had to say was ‘Flatow’ and people knew. But where I am now, I’m not just known for my last name. Now I’m just another soldier. But I’m also a soldier who has a greater mission, thanks to my sister.”
In 2002, Etan — who had also attended the Frisch School in Paramus and West Orange High School — came to Israel for the first time since Alisa’s death and lived as a volunteer on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu for six months. He said he did not remember if he felt scared living in Israel at the height of the Second Intifada, but he often second-guessed himself for coming.
“One day I came to Jerusalem, and I was filled with emotion and cried at the Kotel,” Etan recalled. “I knew this was the last place she prayed before she died. It had a big effect on me at the time. I was the same age that she had been. It’s difficult to outlive your older sister.”
In 2005, following his studies at Queens College in New York, Etan returned to Jerusalem for a month and decided he wanted to live in Israel. He came back for good three months after that and later declared his aliya.
During a visit from Etan’s parents last August, he received his draft notice. He joined the Israel Defense Forces in May and is stationed at the Michvey Allon base in the North for basic training and intensive Hebrew language courses.
Alisa Flatow was studying and volunteering in Israel when she was killed in a terrorist attack; her brother Etan says he thinks about her “constantly.”
“I told my dad he should have sent me to boot camp years ago,” he said. “It really suits me.”
Stephen Flatow, who is a former chair of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, said he never thought his son would become a soldier or move to Israel. Alisa’s three sisters and their children all live in the same Bergen County community.
“Seeing the influence Alisa had on our family’s life, it’s perhaps a natural progression that this would happen,” Stephen said. “It’s the culmination of 20 years of the family being intertwined with Israel, Jewish education, and Jewish tradition. The life-altering experience Etan endured has made him the Zionist that she was.”
Stephen, who has fought on his daughter’s behalf in courtrooms, admitted that he envied Etan, who now has the opportunity to fight for Israel in a different way.
“I hope he will never have to fire a gun [in battle],” Stephen said. “The young people there have the ability to build up a country that is shaping itself. I’d like to think that all my kids will eventually move there. I didn’t have the guts to do it.”
‘Huge mix of emotions’
Alisa was a Brandeis University junior when she took a semester off to study at the Jerusalem seminary Nishmat. She fell in love with Israel, volunteered extensively, and was considering aliya.
Etan remembered that he was sleeping on the couch in his living room when his mother said to turn on the news, because she was afraid his sister was killed in a terrorist attack. His mother’s intuition was later confirmed by a phone call from a friend of Alisa who was on the same bus.
Within an hour, Etan’s entire family was at his house; a few hours later, his father left for Israel. Even in those first few days of grief, the family was determined to find something life-affirming in Alisa’s death: Her heart was successfully transplanted to a 56-year-old man who had been waiting more than a year; her liver was donated to a 23-year-old man, and her lungs, pancreas, and kidneys went to four different recipients. Her corneas were donated to an eye bank.
“I felt proud that the organ donations were helping people,” Etan said. “I felt a huge mix of emotions in a single day. It was very overwhelming. This was the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen to people from New Jersey. It happens to people in Israel. Anyone can get hit by a car. But this we didn’t know how to deal with.”
Etan talked about the enormous outpouring of sympathy and support that came to the family from the community — the Jewish federation, synagogues, organizations, individuals, even strangers. Her funeral drew some 2,000 mourners to Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange.
“Looking back now, they say there are seven levels of grief; I went through four in one day,” Etan said. “We were close because she was the oldest and I was the youngest and the only boy. Alisa formed an immediate bond with everyone she ever met. Even now I meet people who say they knew her, and every one of them has a story.”
Stephen Flatow is proud of the 150 Israel study scholarships allocated over the past 13 years by the Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship Fund, which is administered through the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest.
“Her murder threw us into the limelight, but we have landed on our feet,” he said. “Terrorist attacks affect families in different ways. My family has proven to be resilient and to respond in a positive way. Etan’s decision is proof of that.”
Etan Flatow, second from right, and fellow soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces
And while he is no longer known chiefly as “Alisa Flatow’s brother,” she continues to be a constant inspiration to him.
“It’s hard to say if I have come full circle; it’s more of loop-the-loop, a new circle, or a figure 8,” Etan said. “Everyone in my family tries to do the best we can to memorialize Alisa. My father lectures. My sisters went into education. I try to be the best that I can be.”
- Comment: firstname.lastname@example.org