Kidnapped Teens Are ‘Us’

Rallies and psalms as community seems to transcend differences in shared grief for ‘the boys.’

06/18/14
Associate Editor
Photo Galleria: 
A woman in the West Bank town of Gvaot takes part in prayer for three kidnapped yeshiva students. Getty Images
A woman in the West Bank town of Gvaot takes part in prayer for three kidnapped yeshiva students. Getty Images

There are rallies for politics, and for social causes, but here was a rally of such intimacy, so intensely personal, that the most frequently heard words were “us,” “love,” “imagine” — and “kidnapped.”

The sidewalk opposite the Israeli consulate in Midtown was as somber as a chapel, though hundreds were jammed from the building line to barricades spilling more than a lane into Second Avenue. The people came, of course, for the three Israeli teenaged boys who, while hitchhiking, opened a car door and stepped into oblivion, driven by terrorists on the West Bank roads, away from Gush Etzion.

The kidnapping of Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16, was not something over there, this was “us,” as close as a phone call. Rabbi Avi Weiss, whose Amcha group organized the rally, was quiet, contemplative, standing alone before the event. He said that his daughter Elana lives in Efrat, a town in Gush Etzion. Elana telephoned her father and said that she looks at the mothers of the three boys, “and they’re us.” Rabbi Weiss spoke to his grandson, an Israeli soldier, who called after 48 hours of searching the dusty Hebron alleys just blocks from Isaac’s tomb; if only an angel would appear, as it did to stop Isaac’s sacrifice.

“We have to be very careful that this not be politicized, a right-wing yeshiva thing,” said Rabbi Weiss. “This is all of Am Yisrael [the Jewish people], no matter our denomination or politics. This is not right to left, it’s human.”

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a far-left publication, agreed, e-mailing us that he was “shocked and outraged” by the kidnappings, adding that it was “ridiculous” for anyone to try to “contextualize” the crime within the futility of West Bank politics. “These teens,” e-mailed Rabbi Lerner, “were not the perpetrators or the creators of the occupation. They were children doing what their parents had brought them up to do and to be.”

A reading of Tehillim (Psalms selected for healing dire situations) was scheduled at Seton Park in the Bronx with a chasidic rabbi, a Conservative rabbi, and a Young Israel rabbi. International Chabad-Lubavitch asked that everyone take on a special mitzvah. The Orthodox Union, in partnership with Bnei Akiva and the Rabbinical Council of America, launched an around-the-clock schedule of learning, prayer, and mitzvot, asking people to select a day, a 30-minute slot, and an activity for that time.

The Reform movement posted a prayer on its website. There were similar requests, vigils, Tehillim recitations and e-mail blasts in every neighborhood, from every denomination, elementary school, rabbinical seminary, charity group and federation. Jewish rivalries and denominations were obliterated for “the boys.” Rabbi David Kalb, director of Learning and Innovation at Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation on the East Side, told a reporter at the Amcha rally, “We’re all worried about these students and hope and pray they will come home soon.”

Across the New York area, at Jewish high school graduations this week, audiences rose to say Tehillim for the three high school students who just had a Shabbat unlike any before. Rabbi Steinsaltz, head of Yeshiva Mekor Hayim in Gush Etzion, attended by two of the teens, recommended Psalm 142: “I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me. Set me free from my prison.” Many others were adding Psalm 121, popularized by Shlomo Carlebach’s “Esa Eini,” which reads “I lift up my eyes to the mountains… the Guardian of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep…. God will guard you from all evil….”

At the rally, Isaac Geld said, “We take this very personally. You can just imagine, Jewish kids held in the dark, shackled, what are they thinking? It’s easy to identify with that, even if we don’t know if they’re alive or dead.”

Ethan Stein, 22, a graduate of Ramaz and now at Brandeis University, said he came out of love “for the State of Israel, the Land of Israel and the people of Israel.” He had just returned from staffing a Birthright trip to Israel, heard about the rally via Facebook and “I immediately knew I had to be here.” He said he kept thinking of those “innocent souls.” Stein was telling people near him in the crowd how the official Palestinian media turned “the World Cup emblem into a pro-kidnappers cartoon,” as well as publishing a cartoon depicting three rats upside down, with Jewish stars on their sides, caught on a string.

SAR sent two busses to the rally, including 30 high school students who volunteered to come, even during exams. Rachel Meyer, a junior, was carrying her chemistry notes after that morning’s final Tanach exam in Jeremiah. “Even in finals week,” she said, “there are certain things that are priorities. These are kids just like us, our own age. They could be our friends. They might have had a big test Monday, and so do I, but I’m here to be there for kids who need me much more than I need my grades.”

Meyer, who lives on the Upper West Side, said she will be working as a bunk counselor this summer at Camp Koby, a camp for victims of terror. “This is all very close to me,” said Rachel. “I plan to raise my children in Israel someday, and hopefully they’ll have safe lives.”

Numerous placards featured photos of the captives, Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, already known by their first names in the Jewish imagination. Daniela Krausz, a sophomore, said, “You look into the eyes of these boys, kids you could see walking down [our high school’s] hallways; someone you could be sharing a laugh with. It’s devastating to think what they could be suffering through, while we’re here, safely studying for our finals.”

“As a high school student,” said Jake Brzowsky, “it feels all the more personal. There’s not a lot that we can do, but being here just felt important to me.”

Neither Jake, who will be studying at Israel’s Technion this summer, nor his classmate, Solomon Bergwerk, who will be visiting his sister in the Israeli air force this summer, said they planned to hitchhike when they’re there. “Absolutely not,” said Jake. “Not anymore.”

Karen Fromowitz, from Woodmere, whose son attended Yeshivat Har Etzion in 2008, told The Jewish Week by phone, “Sending my son across the Green Line [to the West Bank] was a huge leap to begin with. Before he went, I was very clear: absolutely no hitchhiking. … I don’t know if he listened, but I made it clear.”

At the rally, one rabbi on the sidewalk who often took leftist positions and asked not to be identified, admitted that Gush Etzion was over the Green Line but “The Gush is part of Israel. We don’t treat it as part of the West Bank. According to previous agreements, this area will go into ‘basic’ Israel, so this kidnapping feels like they penetrated the heartland.”

Avrum Hyman, former president of the Riverdale Jewish Center, e-mailed that there was once a greater awareness that Gush Etzion was not a settlement, as most countries see it, but a place with unique meaning to many Zionists; a Jewish area that was lost in 1948 when Arab armies massacred the Jews living there. In 1967, with the area back in Israeli hands, the orphans of 1948 returned to rebuild. “One Shabbos morning,” wrote Hyman, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg [at the time the shul’s rabbi] told the story of Gush Etzion, “saying they needed $10,000 to build a Quonset hut to serve as a new school building. He asked for $50 donations to fund this facility. … the whole appeal took less than 10 minutes.”

Across from the rally, an Israeli flag hung limp on a ledge of the consulate’s building. In an echo of the Treyvon Martin murder case, when President Obama said, “If I had a son he’d look like Treyvon,” Rabbi Weiss told the crowd, “To the president of the United States … not as a president but as a father. ... A young boy, an American citizen [Frankel], coming home from school, was brutally kidnapped. Respectfully, we need to hear your voice… We need to hear you declare that ‘My heart is broken because Naftali Frenkel is my son.’”

Rabbi Weiss, raising his voice like a shofar, cried out each boy’s name, each name followed by the crowd roaring “Am Yisroel Chai,” the affirmation of Jewish eternity. Singing Hatikvah, with the yearning of a love song, the high school students swayed with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders. Some kept reciting Tehillim after the rally was over.

Somewhere, if alive, Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were surely reciting Tehillim, too, but in a hush.

Staff writer Hannah Dreyfus contributed to this report.

jonathan@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

06/26/2014 - 11:28

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