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Keeping the Spirit of Unity Alive

June 4, 2015

Dear Friend of Israel,

A year ago this week, Israel was immersed in prayer and pain. Three Israeli teens – 16-year-old Gilad Shaar, 16-year-old Naftali Frenkel, and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach – had been kidnapped on their way home from their yeshiva school. The entire nation prayed fervently for their stunned parents and for the boys’ safe return. And then, after two agonizing weeks, Israel was gripped by grief when the boys’ bodies were discovered and it was uncovered that they had been murdered by their terrorist abductors.

Throughout the two weeks when the boys were missing, all of Israel was amazed and moved by the faith, dignity, and poise displayed by the boys’ parents. In a video clip she didn’t even know was being taken, Rachel Frenkel spoke to some young well-wishers who greeted her at the Western Wall. With the compassion of a mother and the wisdom of a sage, she told these children, “Hashem is not our employee, God doesn’t work for us,” reminding them that indeed they should pray, but God is sovereign and would control the outcome – and His power and love are not diminished by any eventuality. She later explained that she was worried for these young people’s faith should, God forbid, the worst happen; she was worried for them, even as her 16-year-old son was missing.

Ofir Shaar, Gilad’s father, spoke candidly in another interview about his own struggles and the challenge of remaining faithful during such a terrible time. “At first I said to God: ‘Enough, we get it, we rose above, we tried. You gave us such a big warning, the kidnapping – we get it.’ Now I don’t try to make deals with God anymore. There are sections of prayer that suddenly take on new meaning. Verses that are usually recited as a matter of routine, quickly, suddenly have a profound meaning.”

All of us who had been praying, who came to care deeply for Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, and who wrestled with an outcome very different from what we had hoped and prayed for, learned a lot from these parents. It would have been easy to despair over the loss of these promising young men who were taken from us so cruelly and senselessly, and to despair over the fact that, even in her pain, Israel continues to face threats at every turn – from terrorists, from world powers, from a media that is too often callous and indifferent to her plight. But these grieving parents inspired us to depend on God and grow even as we grieved.

Amazingly, these six parents are still inspiring us, one year later. In a recent joint op-ed in The Times of Israel, they explained, “During that period of uncertainty we all shared an intense sense of unity unlike anything our people had experienced in recent years with the message of ‘Bring Back Our Boys’ reaching people from so many different backgrounds and places. The feeling of togetherness, of belonging and caring for one another only increased in its fervor during the funerals and the shiva.” During that time, their homes were flooded with visitors offering comfort. “But in one interaction with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who made his way to each of our homes, a seed of an idea was hatched that we knew needed to be developed. He said that we needed to find a way to harness that spirit of unity and keep it alive because this would serve as the ultimate legacy for our sons. And so the idea of the Jerusalem Unity Prize was conceived.”

This prize, awarded yesterday on the one-year anniversary of the kidnappings, recognizes individuals and organizations doing outstanding work to promote Jewish unity. They also established the Memorial Foundation for the Three Boys to promote unity in the Jewish community, both in Israel and abroad, and helped institute the inaugural Unity Day, also yesterday, encouraging Jewish communities around the world to foster unity through communal and educational programs.

Referring to their lost sons, the parents wrote, “It is our eternal joint prayer that they be remembered not simply as victims of a brutal tragedy but also as three ‘normal’ boys who succeeded in bringing a nation together. May the memories of Eyal, Gil-ad, and Naftali inspire us all to really live as one people with one heart.”

As someone whose life work is building bridges of unity – not just within Jewish communities, but between Jews and Christians – I think the concept of Unity Day is a wonderful idea. And this good movement being birthed out of such evil calls to mind the passage in Isaiah 61, where God’s messenger proclaims he has been sent to “provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” In this and every tragedy, I am grateful that we serve a God who can turn our grief into something truly beautiful. Certainly He deserves our collective, uniting devotion.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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