The nearly 3 week period that began with the kidnapping of Gil-ad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach and culminated in the discovery of their murdered bodies was an intense one in Israel. It was a period of prayer, hope and unity. It was a period of time where Jews in Israel stressed our common denominators as opposed to the differences that we tend to harp on.
Three days after the kidnapping, I had a unique experience, taking part in a mass prayer service at the Kotel. Between 30,000-40,000 people packed the Kotel plaza to cry out on behalf of Gil-ad, Nafatali and Eyal and to pray for their safe and speedy return. There was a sense of urgency in the crowd that night in Jerusalem, a sense that we were trying to rip open the gates of heaven itself with our prayers, our cries and our tears.
In the two weeks that followed, the whole country was introduced to the Shaer, Frankel and Yifrach families. Israelis have gotten used to the likes of Karnit Goldwasser or Noam Schalit leading public campaigns calling on the international community and the Israeli government to do whatever is necessary, including the release of convicted murderers, to secure the return of their loved ones. This was not the case this time. These three families displayed faith and courage the likes of which have not been displayed here in such a public and concentrated way here in some time. Instead of making demands of the government, these families professed their faith in G-D. Instead of leading public protests, they thanked all those who were praying and all that they asked for was that people continue to pray, not to forget their sons and brothers. On one telling occasion that was captured by TV cameras and replayed for all in the country to hear, Naftali Frankel’s mother, Racheli, came to the Kotel to pray with the other parents. She was met by children who offered her support and encouragement and she responded by telling them that she believed that the boys would return safely but that even if they didn’t, not to lose faith.
“I want to tell you something. I believe with all of my heart that they’ll return but whatever happens, whatever happens, G-D doesn’t work for us. Whatever happens, stay strong. Even if G-D forbid something else [that they won’t return] happens, stick together.”
Fast forward to this past Sunday, the night before the bodies were discovered. With everything that has gone on this week, Sunday seems like it took place a million years ago. That night, 85,000 converged on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to show their solidarity with the families and to call for the safe return of the boys. I must admit that the size of the crowd that night surprised me. 85,000 in Rabin Square. The symbol of the Left, of Oslo, of secular Tel Aviv, symbol of all of the things that three religious kids learning in yeshivot in the West Bank probably didn’t stand for. Here again, the three mothers spoke to the crowd, thanking them for their prayers, urging them to stay united, strengthening them.
I thought about that scene in Tel Aviv on Monday night when the bodies were found. I couldn’t help but think that it was that show of love and unity in Tel Aviv that managed to bring this saga to end. I couldn’t help but think that the 85,000 in Tel Aviv had managed to open those heavenly gates, to allow for the uncertainty to disappear, to allow the families to mourn, not to be left hanging. Gil-ad, Naftali and Eyal were murdered immediately after they were kidnapped. Their bodies waited for over two weeks to be found and then 85,000 stood in solidarity in Tel Aviv and then their bodies were found just the next day.
I don’t know how diverse the crowd really was in Tel Aviv, I wasn’t there. On some occasions we tell ourselves that “Jews from all walks of life were there”, even when we know it not to be true. We do this because sometimes we need to believe that it’s true, to believe that this unity and solidarity still exists.
I don’t know how diverse the crowd really was Sunday night, but I do know that while on a job interview on Tuesday, the business-like mood changed completely the moment I mentioned that I have family in Nof Ayalon, Naftali Frenkel’s community. I wasn’t there Sunday night, but I heard the somber tone of the radio hosts and the sad music played on all radio stations on Tuesday. I missed the rally on Sunday night, but I saw how people spontaneously left their homes to light memorial candles on Monday night and saw how festivals and celebratory events were cancelled on Tuesday. Even now, on Thursday, I walked into the library in Rehovot to find that the library had placed pictures of Gil-ad, Naftali and Eyal beside a notebook where people can write to the families.
“Was this the Israel that we came to 11 years ago?”, I thought to myself. Would the whole country have stopped to mourn the murder of three teenagers back then? Buses and cafes were blowing up and terrorism in all of its forms was still rampant here when we came. We had become so numbed by the horrific violence around us that we couldn’t contemplate anything other than soldiering on. Part of the spontaneous, authentic, public mourning that has taken place here strikes me, ironically, as symbolizing how much better our security situation is now than it was when we came. This is partially true but I think that anyone here will realize that there’s something more going on. These three families touched us all in ways that no one here seems to be able to recall having experienced before. These three families, in their own period of crisis managed to bring out the best in all of us.