Leiby Kletzky: prayer is not enough in Brooklyn tragedy

Seth Wenig AP A missing person poster is displayed near a crime scene where police found a suitcase believed to … Continued

Seth Wenig


A missing person poster is displayed near a crime scene where police found a suitcase believed to contain the remains of the missing 8-year old boy in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Wednesday, July 13, 2011.

The city of New York is shaking and so is much of the Jewish world. Little Leiby Kletsky of blessed memory, was buried yesterday evening, but nothing has been put to rest.

The details of the horrific murder of the eight year old child can be found elsewhere, for those who want them. But here I want to focus on the powerful and insightful words of Badana Gertz, a woman in her sixties who came from Flatbush, two neighborhoods over from Borough Park, to pick up garbage outside the building in which Leiby lived.

During the frantic 36-hour search for the missing boy, the effort involved not only the full force of the NYPD and the Shomrim, a local volunteer neighborhood security organization, but hundreds, if not thousands, of regular people. They gathered and organized on the street in front of Leiby’s building, and after a day and a half, there was trash. Rather than simply wait for the Department of Sanitation, at least one person, Badana Gertz began the clean up on her own. Why she chose to do so is a spiritual lesson for anyone at any time, but especially at times like these.

Picking up napkins from the street by hand, Ms. Gertz explained, “At least I was able to do something besides pray and pray and pray.” Clearly prayer was a part of the religious woman’s response, but just as clearly, so was the need to something else as well. Although we may never meet, I now count Badana Gertz as among my teachers.

She did not dismiss the importance of prayer, and she did not give up on its value, but she acknowledged that sometimes prayer is simply not enough. I know, that opens the door to as many questions as it answer – “enough” for whom? For Leiby? For God? For Ms. Gertz? I want to respond, “yes” to all three questions, but that is a personal matter, or one left to those who enjoy theological debates which seek a single right answer.

The need to make a material difference, to clean up a mess when your whole world feels dirty – this too, is a holy need. Picking up dirty napkins, in this context at least, is a sacred act. Perhaps in its own way, it is also another form of prayer, one in which, as in the Kaddish (memorial prayer for the dead), we attempt to argue order and goodness back into the world.

To clean up, to mend what is ripped, is a deeply religious impulse — at least for Jews of pretty much every spiritual stripe. I can’t claim to speak authoritatively for other traditions (I barely claim to do so for my own), and I know that the impulse to fix things is itself part of the problem from a Buddhist perspective, but on the morning after Leiby Kletsky’s funeral, there are all kinds of napkins to pick up. I am deeply grateful to Badana Gertz for reminding us that sometimes prayer is not enough and we can all begin picking up those napkins.


Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • vlaunders

    My prayers, thoughts and tears have been consumed by the death of Leiby Kletsky from the moment I read of the unbearebly horrific circumstances of his passing. Those circumstances transcend all religious beliefs. Mr. Hirschfield, I am not of the Jewish faith, but one doesn’t need to be to embrace the lesson shared in your well-written piece. Thank you for sharing the actions of Badana Gertz.. I understand, I understand, I understand, but I will never be able to wrap my brain and heart around the act that brought Ms. Gertz to her mission.

  • capoly

    A humbling act that conveys such spiritual respect for the child and his family. A beautiful article….thank you.

  • arensb

    If I understand correctly, the point of this article is that getting up and doing something — even something menial and trivial — gets things done, and prayer doesn’t.

    Please forgive me if I don’t find this insight particularly profound.

  • jeortega007

    Help out and donate to the Leiby Kletzky Family Fund https://www.fundraise.com/leiby-kletzy-family-fund

  • VeniceCalifornia

    we evangelicals along with our moslem brothers always know that we should pray constantly about everything, butour god and theirs each have their own will, and we will understand it all in our respective heavens . don’t know for sure, but I think the Dali Llama also loves to pray to his God. if you need to see how effective ouor evangelical prayer is, look at Michelle Bachman’s husband, he prayed himself away from being gay, and our tax payers assisted him

  • shavit17

    no, i don’t think you understood correctly.

  • shawnmsim

    So well said — thanks for that.

  • shawnmsim

    No, you definitely didn’t get it — re-read!

  • exbrown

    I know people who pray to find a parking space or to find their lost key and they sincerely thank God when they find their keys or get a parking space. If prayer actually works why does God answer prayers to find keys but answers no when people pray for the safety of an 8 year old? Why do people have to pray to God for God to intervene and do the right thing? Why can’t God save 8 year olds without being asked?
    Far better to clean the street than to pray. Pray is only enough to make those who pray feel good.

  • pgibson1

    wow. you sound like an athiest, because all the Preists ever told me is you pray and God will help.

    What kind of help are you looking for that a co-called listening God is incapable of lending aid with ?

    Or perhaps you are at the boundary of the God/ noGod dilemma.

    Yeah, I figured your faith trumps reason.

    too bad for you.

    As a whole, mankind has already jumped over that hurdle.

    Yet, you persist in medieval tactics of praying to an entity that for the most part, is in your head…..silly U.

    And giving up is to say your faith has, in fact, run out of gas.

  • Mitchavery7


  • YondCassius

    From great tragedy can come great wisdom.

    It is wyrly ironic that the ‘hearing of voices’ may have led to this irrational and atrocious murder and that a more figurative ‘hearing of voices’ perhaps from somewhere ‘up there’ keeps the Jewish people fettered to ancient myths and superstitions.

    If Jews pondered on this similarity and stopped listening to their myth-enabling rabbis, maybe they could free themselves.

  • mkennedy89

    Thank you for this. And thank you Badna Gertz.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “Yeah, I figured your faith trumps reason.”

    Who do you think gave us reason?

    Reason is just one of the tools that God gave to humanity.

    You then wrote, “As a whole, mankind has already jumped over that hurdle.”

    Is this “wishful thinking” on your part?

    Scientific poll-taking seems to disagree with your assessment.

    God’s Name is not Jack and God does not jump when we tell God to jump, but God does have a Plan and God”s Plan will come to Fruition.

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