MISSION HILLS — In the Jewish religion, tradition holds that a funeral be held within three days of a death. But the family of Yon Rojany, 19, who died July 17 in the explosion of TWA Flight 800, waited until his body was found.
Divers found the body Tuesday. On Sunday, the memorial service for Yony, as his family called him, could finally be held.
At exactly noon, 500 well-wishers and relatives gathered at Eden Memorial Park to say goodbye to the former Birmingham High School tennis and basketball star who died along with 229 others in the disaster.
Described as "playful and well disciplined" by Carol Spector, his senior year government teacher, Yony was chasing his dream of playing professional basketball in Europe before his flight went down over Long Island. The Santa Monica college student, who was one of the 13 Southland residents who died in the crash, had begged his father for a chance to attend the tryouts in Europe.
Yony's father, Shimon Rojany, recalled at the service that he had told his son he was too short at 6-foot to play professional ball. But the teenager, Rojany said, insisted he could "run and dunk with the best of them."
Yony's best friend from high school, Tony Silberfield, was supposed to be on the same flight, but switched at the last minute. On Sunday, Tony served as one of the pallbearers.
Other family members who spoke at the service remembered Yony as a fun-loving prankster and fiercely passionate young man whom they loved and admired.
A chapel where the service was held was too small for the crowd--about 300 people had to stand on a patio outdoors, from which they could hear but not see the speakers.
Rabbi Baruch Y. Gradon began his talk with: "There are times when it seems no words are appropriate."
But his words were heartwarming and emotional.
"If we could have Yony back here for just two more minutes, what do you think he would say?" Gradon's asked with a quivering voice. "He would tell us to always tell the truth . . . to always love your family . . . to be prepared to sacrifice for your people."
With the flags of Israel and the United States as a backdrop, Gradon told the story of Yony wanting to follow his father by joining the Israeli Army. Gradon said that like millions of other Americans he felt a "stone in his heart," after learning of the crash.
Shimon Rojany said that when he arrived in New York after the crash to join other families waiting for news of their loved ones, he had to prepare for the possibility that divers would not retrieve the body. "In case he was never found," Rojany said at the service, "I said to myself that the place was so beautiful that, if I have to, I will accept the ocean as your grave."
When the body was found, Rojany said, Yony's wallet was still in his back pocket. Three pictures of his girlfriend, Wendy, were wet but tucked inside. The family was given his suitcase, which had been been on another flight and had made it to Yony's intended destination, Milan, Italy.
In saying goodbye to his son, Rojany said, "You were my friend, my pride and joy and my soul. Your rose petals were just beginning to open. There were times when I unequivocally adored you and others when I disagreed with you, but I loved your intellectual curiosity.
"I guess our relationship was no different from that of any other father and son."
With the hourlong service completed, the crowd streamed past Yony's plain wooden casket amid continuous sobs. Some ran fingers across the raised Star of David on the closed casket's lid. Others whispered words of condolences to the family.
The burial was a short walk up a hill, where the crowd huddled in a circle around the grave. Rojany was the first to grab a shovel, beginning the burial of the son he helped bring into the world.
Then Yony's brother, Eric, took a shovel and joined his father. His black tuxedo pants became soiled with dirt, but Eric kept frantically dumping soil onto the casket. Yony's mother, Lisa Michelson, and other family members joined in too, their tears mixing with the dust.
But even as other friends, family and a few rabbis handed shovels back and forth to take turns, the father and brother feverishly kept on.
A stocky rabbi stopped the shoveling. He said in an unwavering voice: "Let the world know that no one can destroy the hope that Yony still lives here. . . . We pray for no more death, no more suffering."
But perhaps no one summed up better than Yony himself the theme of the service. In his bar mitzvah journal, which his family found a few days ago and read at the service, Yony wrote: "I have learned that I can't take anything for granted. I have to live life to the fullest."