By Jeffrey F. Barken
“In the Diaspora, people say they can’t remember a time when [Jews] came together across denominations,” Racheli Frenkel, the mother of one of the three Jewish teenagers who were kidnapped and killed by Hamas in Gush Etzion last summer, tells JNS.org regarding her recent visit to the United States. “I’m convinced that it wasn’t an illusion. Hasidic Jews, Orthodox, [and] seculars all came together, and we were one family.”
Frenkel refers to last June, when world Jewry displayed what many considered to be uncommon unity during Israel’s search for abducted teenagers Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach. Though the teens’ dead bodies were found on June 30, an audio recording revealed that they were murdered shortly after being kidnapped on June 12.
From the perspective that they had already been killed, the nearly three-week search for the boys was for naught. But that doesn’t take into account the search’s impact on the Jewish people.
“The story of Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad, zichronam livracha (may their memories be blessed), gripped our people like few others and brought out the best of us in the face of tragedy,” says Yoni Sherizen, program and development director at Gesher, an organization dedicated to bridging rifts in Israeli society. “Today, we are challenged to take hold of that unique solidarity and make it [the boys’] legacy-to strengthen the bonds between our people and break down barriers that are created by our differences.”
The Frenkel, Shaar, and Yifrach families have teamed with Gesher as well as the city of Jerusalem to establish the recently launched Jerusalem Unity Prize, which will be presented for the first time on “Jewish Unity Day,” to be marked with special events on June 3 in Jerusalem.
The unity initiative offers 100,000-shekel (about $25,000) prize packages in three separate categories: individuals and organizations, social initiatives, and Israel and the Diaspora. The three recipients of the prize will be recognized for enhancing Jewish bonds and communal understanding.
During their first trip abroad since last summer, Racheli Frenkel and Ofir Shaar, the father of the late Gilad, spoke at an event hosted by the UJA-Federation of New York that celebrated the establishment of the Jerusalem Unity Prize. The new prize “reminds us to find common ground and raise each other up, not just in crisis, but always,” said Eric. S. Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation.
Ofir Shaar notes the cynical saying that there are often “two Jews, three opinions,” but says that “at the end of the sentence we are one heart.” He tells JNS.org that the Jerusalem Unity Prize initiative is “trying to make a uniformity, a new language.”
“If we understand that there is a basic common entity, then we can build a new platform,” he says.
Since they were launched Jan. 1, the three unity prizes have garnered 180 nominees-spanning the Jewish spectrum, from haredi to secular.
Frenkel originally envisioned the prize as a purely Jewish venture, but says she now believes “anyone can be nominated,” noting that many non-Jews provided support after the teens were killed. Politically, the committee in charge of selecting the winners is varied “from the left and the right,” with the goal of assessing the nominees in the spirit of unity and without bias, Frenkel says.
Both Shaar and Frenkel are aware that the upcoming March 17 Israeli election prompts divisive talk that distracts from their message of unity.
“The media emphasizes the differences and disputes,” Frenkel tells JNS.org. “[But] 80 percent of the time, we agree, and we should focus on this in Israel. We try to take the sweet out of the bitter.”
At the same time, Shaar says, “We don’t want everyone to think the same.” Frenkel agrees, calling disagreements “an essential part” of society.
“Those dividing lines are all discussions that need to take place, and if they are true, honest debates, they should go on in a caring way,” she says.
In that respect, the Jerusalem Unity Prize aims to facilitate compassionate discussions that transcend traditional barriers to solidarity among Israelis. The June 3 Jewish Unity Day, meanwhile, encourages Diaspora Jewish communities to have a voice in Israel’s future.
The kidnapping and murder of three boys triggered a turbulent summer in Israel. After Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered in an apparent revenge killing, a slew of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel prompted the Jewish state to launch Operation Protective Edge, which started as an air campaign but transitioned to a ground operation with the goal of destroying Hamas’s network of terror tunnels running under the Gaza-Israel border. In all, the war would last 50 days.
Despite the persistent hostility and distrust created by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Frenkel has not shrugged off efforts to bring about peace.
“I am making a great effort not to raise my children on hate,” she says, adding, “When Mohammed [Abu Khdeir] was murdered, the first thing we did was speak out against this.”
Moving forward, the unity prize’s organizers hope that last summer’s scars, which brought disparate Israeli and Jewish communities closer together, engender a lasting new dialogue.
“We lived a very quiet life,” Frenkel says, recalling her late son’s childhood. “I think Naftali wasn’t naïve. He knew there are no easy answers, yet he grew up very confident of our future in Israel.”