“May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”
The sirens are blaring again. Hamas rockets are raining down on Israel. The ground operation in Gaza is impending. The escalation no one seems to want appears almost inevitable. The calm is over.
A few weeks ago, we were grieving over the three boys, and then soon after, a fourth. But at this moment in time, the personal has transformed into the political. As the battle lines are drawn out on the field, so too will they be drawn soon in the political realm. Not only among the media, but also across social media. And likewise, not only between the friends and foes of Israel, but within the pro-Israel community itself.
These divisions are inevitable. We know the story of the media narratives all too well. The latter, however, strikes a chord of discomfort. Not because such division is wrong. Quite the contrary. In Israel proper, it is entirely understandable that this division will take place. The implications for each and every civilian are deeply intimate, and they will inevitably lead to strong sentiments and disagreements about strategy, ideology, and even proportionality. Similarly, in the diaspora, the geostrategic implications of the latest round of violence, including Hamas’ rockets into Tel Aviv, the protests in East Jerusalem, and the state of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed attempt to broker an agreement, all merit a nuanced policy discussion on the Israeli government’s response and the U.S. government’s role that will invariably lead to vociferous debate.
What is discomforting in this final division, rather, is that in focusing on the political, many have lost focus on the personal tragedy that had only earlier this month united us in mourning. In doing so, we risk neglecting those among us who still grieve. While we argue, they mourn.
It was less than ten days ago that the world was showering the family of Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali – and subsequently, Muhammad – with our condolences and our blessings. We have conveniently moved on.
The families haven’t.
It may seem strange, at the moment of escalation and heightened tensions, to invoke the memories of the murdered boys. Yet because it is precisely at this moment that it is easiest to forget, it is all the more necessary to recall and remember. One can easily understand how Israelis, as they gear up for conflict, must focus on the task at hand. For those of us in the diaspora, it is not our place to abandon the families as they grieve their losses.
But more than that, it is incumbent upon us to continue to listen to them. These families have something to say, and when we turn away rather than listen, we silence their mourning.
For those of us who can afford a moment to think of others, it is worth reminding ourselves of this mourning, and necessary to bring light upon those who still grieve.
To those of us who have spent time in the Jewish community in Washington, D.C., the name Manny Halberstam is ubiquitous. He is a fixture, a mid-20s young professional who is a standout among an incredibly active and relatively observant Jewish community. On a given Shabbat evening, he can be found leading services at Kesher Israel in Georgetown. On Shabbat mornings, he is reliably seen at 6th and I in Chinatown. A year ago, Manny co-founded the city’s first-ever organized weekly Talmud study class, where young Jewish professionals study under rabbinically-led seminars – a scene reminiscent of Jerusalem’s yeshivot, if not for the fact that it meets a block away from the White House. He just finished law school and yet makes the time to pray daily; works and studies constantly and yet makes the time to lead study sessions of Jewish text from his Chinatown apartment; maintains a devoutly Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and yet never would dream of demeaning those less learned in Judaism (yours truly included). In all my years knowing Manny, I cannot remember ever hearing him speak a single word of Lashon hara about anyone. Not a single time.
Manny is a servant of the Jewish community, beloved across the political spectrum of D.C. Jewry, not to mention among those of us lucky enough to call him a friend. He is a deeply devout, deeply spiritual person.
But in the past few weeks, much of the rest of the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world has gotten to know Manny under a different title: the cousin of murdered Israeli teen Naftali Frenkel. For many here, Manny has become the face of Jewish mourning for the tragedy that befell the murdered teens.
In the weeks since Naftali’s abduction and subsequent murder, Manny’s transmission of the traits that made him a Jewish fixture into those of a Jewish leader has been a sight to behold. Along with his friend and fellow Jewish community leader Aaron Wolff, Manny organized vigil after vigil and partook in and led prayer session after prayer session. Their vigil in front of the White House following the boys’ abduction garnered international press (including in Times of Israel), not to mention a turnout in the hundreds of souls searching for catharsis. Manny raced off to New York countless times to give talks and interviews. He penned an op-ed for Fox News and spoke with CNN. On the day we heard of Naftali’s death, Manny helped lead a vigil of prayer and mournful song in front of Israel’s Embassy. In the days that followed, Manny once again crisscrossed between New York and D.C. – often back and forth in a single day – to speak, to pray, and to convey a message of hope in the wake of tragedy. When he spoke, it was never about himself, but rather always about Naftali’s family and the Jewish community at large.
He has done all this, mind you, while preparing to take the New York Bar Exam in the beginning of August.
In Manny’s time of most intense need, he instead gave. This is who Manny is. This is the family from which Naftali Frenkel came.
Manny’s message throughout, conveyed through his own personal reflection and through constant communication with the Frenkel family, was threefold. First, he expressed gratitude and inspiration for those who have supported the family through its horrible ordeal. Secondly, he disavowed and condemned the Jews who sought to take vengeance into their own hands, rather than leave the dispensing of such justice to God. Third and most emphatically, Manny expressed a renewed optimism for a humanity that could rally around families in unexpected and overwhelming empathy.
It was this last sentiment that, given Manny’s personality and love of the Jewish value of compassion, spoke most personally to him. The beautiful way in which Racheli Frenkel and others had reacted to these unthinkable tragedies – with grief and solemnity, yet also with empathy, love, and compassion – was reflected in Manny. It was his jumping off point for Jewish leadership in the nation’s capital. We simply followed Manny and Racheli’s lead.
This is the type of family from which Naftali Frenkel left to rejoin his maker.
Today, Manny Halberstam, along with the families of Naftali Frenkel, Muhammad Khdeir, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, are still in grief. Amidst all the hasbara, the facebook postings, and the fierce debate, are we still listening to their cries the way we were just a few days ago? Are we remembering them? Or, in our race to defend Israel, have we let ourselves forget these Israelis?
I spoke to Manny by phone a few days ago just to check in. I asked him if, as the community once united in grief and empathy had once again begun to divide over the conflict’s escalation, he had any message he wanted to pass along, either on his own or on behalf of the Frenkel family. Here are his words, only lightly edited:
“Global media, in covering the recent outbreak of violence in Israel, has focused heavily on the policy implications raised by the murder of the three Israeli teens and the murder of one Palestinian teen and, in doing so, have failed to give sufficient attention to the heroic fashion in which the immediate families of these teens have responded to their losses. The media’s fixation on policy analysis, while natural, has had the unfortunate effect of drowning out the plea of the bereaved who, in the face of heart-wrenching tragedy, have offered the world a resounding message of love and compassion.
“Earlier this week, Racheli Frenkel, mother of Naftali, one of the three murdered Israeli teens, expressed her sympathy for the family of Muhammad, the recently murdered Arab boy. ‘No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Muhammad’s parents,’ Racheli said in a statement. Describing the legacy of her son, Naftali, as ‘one of love and humanity,’ Racheli pleaded that ‘the shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys.’
“If Racheli’s moving words received more attention from the media, if her voice could be heard all over the world, and if her powerful message about the imperative of empathy fully penetrated the hearts of people, the ultimate goal of any well-intentioned policy analysis that the media engages in – the creation of a more just, peaceful and secure world – would be realized. After all, it is this sentiment of compassion for ‘the other’ that Racheli has courageously shown during the past few weeks that, more than any policy initiative or military action that Israeli or Palestinian leaders can take, has the power to bridge the divide between two peoples. On a broader level, it is a pervasive spirit of interpersonal empathy and a pervasive feeling of common humanity that, more than any resolution that the UN can pass, has the power to rescue human civilization from a future of further conflict and bloodshed; it is the force of compassion that, more than anything else, has the power to redeem humanity from its current ills.”
These words may resonate more with some than with others. Some may find them inspiring, while others may believe them overly idealistic. Regardless of where we stand, it is our duty to stand with the mourners. It is incumbent upon us to listen, so that those in grief know they are not mourning alone.
Less than a month ago, 30,000 people gathered at the Western Wall to pray for the return of the abducted teens. An estimated 50,000 showed up for their funerals only several days ago. Today, our attention has been diverted. But perhaps, amidst the political, we might carve out a few minutes each day to remember the personal – that there are families who are still in the depths of mourning, and who still have something to say. For their sake, may we still be present to hear them, and may we be moved by their words in spite of the crossfire that rages in their midst.
And may we let the grieving know we are still listening to their cry.