Friends remember Marla Bennett’s life at a U.C. Berkeley memorial service

Lesley Said misses her friend Marla Bennett at the good times. And the bad times. And all the times in between.

But mostly Said misses the U.C. Berkeley alumna at the times when her friend would be likely to flash her memorable smile. The 24-year-old died along with eight others as a result of July’s Hebrew University bombing in Jerusalem.

“A few weeks ago, I was at the wedding of some friends that Marla intended to be in town for,” the Berkeley Hillel program coordinator said. “On Friday we had a Shabbat service upstairs…and our friends are very musical and sang in a beautiful, powerful way. I was so happy, loving the energy in the room, loving the moment.

“Then I had a flash of Marla turning to me and smiling her Marla smile,” Said recalled Tuesday night at a packed memorial service held at Berkeley’s Hillel House. “At the time, the feeling made me feel incredibly empty. But Marla lives on in each of us as we live on, celebrate and sing.”

The memorial marked the end of shloshim, the 30-day period of mourning following a death.

Bennett, a native of San Diego, graduated from U.C. Berkeley two years ago and was in her second year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. She was killed July 31, when a terrorist-planted nail-studded bomb ripped apart Hebrew University’s cafeteria.

At the Berkeley gathering, one speaker after another lauded Bennett for her generosity, compassion, and commitment to Judaism and Israel. They recalled her ability to “keep her friends sane,” and her knack for making people “feel like superstars.” And they also reveled in her quirks and idiosyncrasies, providing welcome laughs for both Bennett’s good friends and those who heard of her only after her untimely death.

Yet chuckles at Bennett’s aversion to carrying objects in her hands, colorful vocabulary or ability to cut a perfectly straight line with a pair of scissors — a great benefit in her role as religious-school teacher — could not mask her friends’ sorrow at losing her much too soon.

“I will miss her smile, her joie de vivre, her giggle, her desire to be part of everything fun and exciting,” said Lori Abramson, the educational director at Oakland’s Reform Temple Sinai, where Bennett taught.

“She was someone I expected to grow old with,” said Stephanie Levin, Bennett’s close friend. “She was supposed to grow old. She was supposed to come home.

“She did not die in an accident or due to a bad choice. She was murdered because violence has become an acceptable way for people to express frustrations. She died in the place she loved, doing exactly what she wanted to do. She died living out her heart’s desire. Few people grow their dreams into realities. Despite this tragedy, it is a blessing that her soul was content; she was doing what she chose.”

With the High Holy Days so close at hand, Ari Moss will be having particular difficulty with tshuvah –the return to God — this year.

“What God is this that took our beautiful Marla from us? As we enter a new year, I am troubled that my God allowed this tragedy to happen. He has ripped a tree that has not yet borne fruit from the ground. God commanded us not to take a fruit tree, not even in a time of war. Here, Marla was a casualty of war,” Bennett’s pained friend recalled.

Addressing the standing-room-only audience of more than 100 — including Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean and U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl — Moss continued: “A man created in the image of God made a bomb and placed it by her side. So, as we sit here tonight commanded to forgive and return to God — and yet how? It’s not enough to say God acts in mysterious ways or He gives and takes away. Clichés cannot answer the pain I feel.”

Despite his pain, Moss said he is “steadfast” in his faith, as “denying God’s existence would pervert Marla’s memory.”

“I stand here before you struggling with God. Yes, this year returning to God will be harder than before. But I will. This year I will seek God to help me remember Marla, help me choose blessing rather than curse, choose life over death…

“God help me be strong and help me strengthen others as Marla would have done.”