School reunion in Israel a colorful affair tinged with sadness

Ora Bogomolny sounded subdued, as if the phone call to her Israel apartment had disturbed her sleep.

Indeed, she had experienced a nightmare just hours before receiving the call from “Seeking Kin” on June 13.

Bogomolny had learned that Avraham Siton suffered a fatal heart attack in a Manhattan hotel room mere hours before his scheduled flight for Israel to attend a reunion of their Tel Aviv elementary school class — an event Bogomolny was spearheading.

The previous night’s get-together of the class of 1953 had gone beautifully. But Siton’s death “destroyed all the good feeling we had” from the event, said Bogomolny.

She had decided last year to organize the reunion, an endeavor “Seeking Kin” wrote about in November 2012. She found Siton living in New Jersey, and the two began corresponding. Bogomolny, of Toronto, even met Siton and another Geulah Elementary School classmate, Mashiach Moshe Shem-Tov, for lunch twice last winter while visiting Florida.

In calls and emails, Siton told her how much he was looking forward to the June reunion. Two days before Bogomolny left her home for Israel, Siton sent one last email. “Have a safe trip,” he wrote. “See you soon.”

Twenty-nine children were in the class of ’53 at Geulah, in downtown Tel Aviv. The school no longer exists, but the building does — it wasn’t far from the reunion festivities at the Tal Hotel. Two classmates, Dov Becker and Rachel Gutfeld Younish, handled most of the reunion’s logistical planning, and Bogomolny labored at finding everyone. Some, like her, lived outside Israel. Six had died. Others were too ill to attend.

All told, 17 Geulah students came, six with spouses. Becker, who lives near Netanya, brought his daughter Noa, a photographer. It was “a magical atmosphere,” Becker said.

But he and Bogomolny grew concerned by Siton’s absence. They glanced at the door constantly, awaiting his entrance. Others did, too. Siton, Bogomolny said, “was the star of the class: handsome, successful. He’d left for the U.S. at age 17.”

Tracking down Siton last fall hadn’t been easy. Bogomolny spoke on Israeli radio and mentioned her search to a friend, who had attended Geulah’s high school with Siton’s older brother, Ovadiah. The women eventually located the Sitons’ niece in New Jersey, who said the family changed their names long ago: Ovadiah Siton became Buddy Sutton; Avraham Siton became Al Sutton.

Once found, Avraham Siton was thrilled to reconnect.

Siton, 74, had enjoyed a successful career, partnering with Buddy and another older brother, Mike, in several clothing and linen businesses in the New York area, among them Sutton Stores. He and his wife, Paula, had three children, who produced seven grandchildren.

In an interview, Buddy Sutton said Avraham was “very good-hearted,” serving on the board of Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center and building a synagogue there in memory of their parents.

Two days before the reunion, Bogomolny called the Tel Aviv Hilton and learned that her classmate had not checked in. After the reunion, she grew more worried and asked Becker to call Siton’s wife in Long Branch, N.J. Buddy Sutton came on the line and broke the news.

Now the surviving classmates grapple with the cruelty of it all, especially the timing.

“It’s a paradox,” Becker said. “If we’d … known he died, I wonder whether the event would have proceeded — and if it did, what the atmosphere would have been. It certainly wouldn’t have been happy. This was the fates laughing.”

Bogomolny had invested her all into this once-in-a-lifetime event.

“Sometimes I wonder if it was a good idea to have a reunion. Maybe if I didn’t have the reunion, he’d still be alive,” she said. “Maybe he was overexcited.”

Bogomolny can take solace in the reunion having drawn Siton back toward his childhood friends. For those he would never see again, he’ll remain forever young.


The “Seeking Kin” column aims to help reunite long-lost relatives and friends. Please email Hillel Kuttler at [email protected] if you would like him to write about your search for long-lost relatives and friends.