As the President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I was privileged to participate in a small lunchtime reception welcoming the recently liberated Israeli prisoner of war Gilad Shalit to New York. The reception was sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the umbrella organization whose constituent members had played an integral part in the international campaign to gain Shalit’s release.
I don’t think there was anyone in that room who was not overwhelmed with emotion, and a deep sense of gratitude for the sheer unexpectedness of the moment. Gilad Shalit’s imprisonment was, for all the years of his captivity, imprinted on the consciousness of virtually every Jew in this country who cared about Israel, and many non-Jewish supporters as well. The bitter experience of Israeli aviator Ron Arad, captured by Lebanese Shiites in 1986 and handed over to Hezbollah, his ultimate fate never divulged, left little reason for hope for Gilad, whose Hamas handlers were known to be brutal. Barely a prayerful moment went by in a synagogue without his name being mentioned. The passionate and unrelenting campaign waged by his father was a poignant actualization of parental love, and challenged all of us who are parents to ask ourselves what we would do- and what we might not do – were we in the same situation.
And so it was that we were crammed into a relatively small, hot room on one of those very hot days last week in New York, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the guest of honor. And, finally, in he came… casually dressed, maybe a few pounds heavier than he was when we first saw images of him on the day of his release, but still, thin to the point of gaunt, and very, very shy and reserved.
Actually, that is an understatement. Gilad Shalit was clearly uncomfortable being the center of attention even in that relatively small group of people.
A moving slide show displayed the dramatic efforts that were made in the New York Jewish community on his behalf, and the leaders of the Conference made clear how privileged we all felt to be able to welcome him. But when it came time for Gilad to address the assembled guests, he was barely audible. He shared how grateful he was for the efforts, but spoke no more than a very few sentences before relinquishing the podium to his hosts.
At first, I must admit, I didn’t know quite what to make of this briefest and most self-effacing little speech. Having met and spoken at some length with Natan Sharansky last summer on a visit to the former Soviet Union, I think I was expecting to encounter a similar kind of person- iron will, indomitable spirit, Psalms-reading they-will- not-conquer-me type of personality. When you spend even a few moments speaking with Scharansky, you get a sense of an extraordinary personality. He is a figure of towering strength and integrity.
But I quickly realized that expecting Gilad Shalit to be Natan Sharansky was a grossly unfair way of appreciating and understanding that extraordinary moment. The point is exactly that Shalit is not Sharansky.
Natan Scharansky essentially picked a fight with the Soviet regime, and he knew what he was getting into. As a leading and already towering figure among his fellow refuseniks, he consciously pitted his indomitable spirit against the full oppressive power of the Soviet regime. In so doing, he became the inspiring symbol for an entire generation of Jews struggling for their liberation. He knew that he was likely to be separated from his beloved Avital for an extended period- maybe even forever- but he persevered nonetheless. And even subsequent to his liberation, as he began his new life in Israel, he remained- and is to this day, as Chairman of the Jewish Agency– a powerful moral voice in Israel.
It took but one glance at Gilad Shalit to see what should have been obvious after all these years. He was shy and retiring before his captivity, and God alone at this point knows what he experienced during those awful years. He was just a young man doing his army service who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and became a symbol of Israel’s struggle against Hamas and its brutality. He could be any one of our sons. He never sought the limelight, never saw himself as any kind of heroic figure, and appears to want nothing more than to try and reclaim his life that was so rudely and brutally interrupted.
And, of course, he deserves that, and much more…
What Gilad Shalit is doing now is working as a sports reporter for Yediot, a major daily tabloid newspaper in Israel. Actually, he was in New York not to meet us, but in transit from the NBA finals to the UEFA final game in Kiev. He is, finally, living the life he wants to be living.
More power to him!