While Seders around the world welcome Elijah every year, Birmingham’s Sidney Conn is encouraging people to make room for someone else — Hadar Cohen.
This is the fourth year that Conn has made that request to friends, as this is the fourth year that Cohen will not be attending a Seder, having been killed in a 2016 terror attack. In her honor, and to represent all Israel Defense Forces soldiers and civilians who have been lost in terror attacks, Conn urges the placement of a single flower on the Seder table, “A Flower for Hadar.”
Conn volunteers with Sar-El, the National Project for Volunteers in Israel. Many of the volunteers do some of the grunt work that would otherwise take time away from training and preparedness for Israeli soldiers.
During his 2016 service while his wife, Elenor, was studying at Tel Aviv University, his barracks were overlooking the junction at Gush Etzion, the site of several terror attacks.
Cohen grew up in Ohr Yehuda, and had been a border officer for two months. On her first day at the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem, Feb. 3, 2016, her border police team approached two Palestinians who were acting suspiciously. As one officer checked their identification, a second one pulled out a knife and stabbed Ravit, another officer, in the neck.
Cohen managed to shoot the assailant, saving the life of her friend. A third terrorist, previously unnoticed and behind Cohen, opened fire with an automatic weapon, critically wounding Cohen in the head. She was rushed to Hadassah Medical Center, where she later died of her wounds. She was 19.
The team was credited with stopping a major terror attack that was intended to inflict many casualties. The next day, novelist Naomi Ragen penned a tribute, saying Cohen “saved my life, and the lives of so many others who live in Jerusalem.”
Though Conn did not know the Cohens, news of her death made a huge impression. At Sar-El, some soldiers were tasked with guiding the foreign volunteers. The Madrichot are “some of the finest girls you’re ever going to meet,” Conn said. Many are Lone Soldiers, who go to Israel to serve in the military despite not having any family in the country to serve as a support structure.
“These kids are the brightest of the bright,” he said, and they were roughly the same age as Cohen.
Returning home in 2016, Conn sent letters asking friends to have a “Flower for Hadar” on the Seder table.
He has been back to Israel several times since then. On one visit, he brought two polished stones that he had picked up at DeSoto Falls in Alabama, for his visit to the cemetery.
“We can’t seem to get Hadar’s self-sacrifice out of our hearts and minds, nor are we trying to do so,” he said.
During one service project near Ohr Yehuda, he met someone who knew the Cohens, and the connection was made. They are “the sweetest, nicest people,” Conn said. Because they are in their mid-40s, “they have a lot of years to be carrying this.”
This year, Conn is expanding his effort. He is working to establish a foundation, also called “A Flower for Hadar,” to raise funds that will go toward scholarships for the Madrichot for their studies after their military service.
He said many of them do not have families who are able to help them with their studies, so this will be a way to give back to them. He noted that Sar El has agreed to identify those who are candidates for the assistance.
He is currently organizing the foundation and wants “to hit the road running” when it is launched.