But there were also notable moments of light. As this year draws to a close, here is a chronology of some of the more heartwarming stories JTA published this year.
An Orthodox Jew builds bridges with his Yemeni Muslim neighbors
After President Donald Trump issued his first executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Alexander Rapaport, a Hasidic Jew, wanted to show his support for his neighbors in Brooklyn. So when New York bodega owners from Yemen went on strike in February in protest of the ban, Rapaport organized community members to put Post-it notes with messages of support on the storefront of a local store owned by Yemeni immigrants.
“I made a point of walking in there today — I actually live a mile away,” Rapaport, the executive director Masbia, a kosher soup kitchen network, told JTA. “I just learned that they were Yemenite, and I was looking to do something in solidarity with the people affected by the executive order.”
A 6-year-old girl sends painted rocks to decorate vandalized Jewish cemeteries
When 6-year-old Ayel Morgenstern learned that her great-great-grandmother’s headstone was among the 100toppled at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis in February, she sprung into action.
Ayel, who lives in Florida, decided in March to paint rocks to decorate headstones at the St. Louis cemetery, as well as for additional grave sites that were vandalized at a Philadelphia cemetery. In the end, Ayel painted more than 250 rocks, which she sent to the cemeteries — plus an additional 100 stones that she sent to the family of Adam Krief, a Jewish father of three who died after a highly publicized struggle with blood cancer.
A dog saves a couple from a fire at a kosher supermarket
Daisy, a 3-year-old spaniel, helped avert disaster when fire broke out at a London kosher supermarket in June. The dog’s barking roused Alex Gibson and Charlotte Perren, who were sleeping in their apartment above the store. Fortunately, the couple was able to make it out on time — but Daisy, who belongs to Gibson’s mother and whom the couple was taking care of, died of smoke inhalation.
“Daisy was our hero,” Gibson told The Jewish Chronicle. “It was fate she happened to be staying with us that night. She saved both of our lives and our neighbors.”
A Jewish woman comforts a distressed child with autism on an airplane
During a transatlantic flight in July, Rochel Groner noticed an autistic boy crying and shrieking. The atmosphere on the flight grew increasingly tense and and she felt she had to do something. Groner, a Chabad emissary in North Carolina, who with her husband runs two groups for young adults with special needs, approached the child and comforted him for about two hours.
“I put out my hand, and he took my hand. It was such a surreal moment, and he just took it, and he stopped crying,” she said. “He kind of just followed me into the aisle. I walked to the bulkhead, and I sat down and I put him in my lap, and I gave him a gentle but firm hug and I just started to rock him. He calmed down.”
Social media users were touched by the story. Photos of Groner holding the boy, along with a post by her husband detailing the account, received some 6,700 likes and was shared 1,300 times on Facebook.
In Israel, a monkey and a chicken become best friends
At the Ramat Gan Safari Park near Tel Aviv, Niv, an Indonesian black macaque, was having a bit of trouble finding a mate. So he got creative.
When a chicken wandered into his enclosure, the monkey cozied up to it — and an inseparable friendship was born. Niv has been hanging out with the bird on a regular basis, holding it, caressing it and sleeping next to it at night. The friendship, which was documented in August, appears to be mutual; after all, the chicken can easily slip out of the monkey cage but chooses to stay.
While 2017 wasn’t a year for forging lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors, at least this pair found a way to put their differences aside and live in harmony.
After surviving Hurricane Harvey, this woman distributes mezuzahs to people in need
Houston resident Chava Gal-Or was lucky: Though flooding from Hurricane Harvey reached her door, her home survived the storm unscathed. But that wasn’t the case for many of the members of Temple Sinai, where she works. So Gal-Or wanted to do something to help those families in need — along with assisting scores of others who had been affected by recent natural disasters.
“I can’t rebuild their houses,” Gal-Or told JTA. “I don’t have the money to do much. There was this increasing awareness that there was nothing I could do.”
Then she realized she could help by collecting mezuzahs, the small scrolls traditionally affixed to the doorposts of Jewish dwellings, and distributing them for free to Jewish people in need. She started the unofficial organization Door L’Door — a play on the biblical phrase “l’dor v’dor,” which means “from generation to generation” — raising money and soliciting donations for mezuzahs, with the goal to to dispatch them to Jews in need.
Supporters raise over $1 million for an Orthodox fashion designer after her husband suddenly died
Tragedy struck Simi Polonsky, the Orthodox co-founder of a modest fashion label, when her husband, Shua, died in November from a condition he had contracted only weeks before. To help alleviate her suffering, supporters quickly came to her aid — and more than 9,000 donors raised over $1 million online for Polonsky and her two young children, with a third on the way.
Polonsky, who said she will continue working on The Frock NYC, wrote movingly on Instagram that the support helped her go on.
“I know no one will be able to heal my broken heart, but at the times when I feel like I just cannot keep my arms raised any longer, your love and support are the rocks that hold them for me,” she wrote. “My mind boggles, when I think about the unstoppable love that ushers unto my family on a minute to minute basis.”