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Touched by three

Late Monday night I accompanied our 15-year-old “baby,” Yisrael Meir, back to his yeshivah high school. Summer vacation had actually begun the previous Thursday, but after the discovery of the boys’ bodies everyone headed back. Most of you don’t know our youngest son, but you probably saw him numerous times in the 18 days after Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped at the bus stop down the road from where we live. Several photos (see top photo) in which our son appears have been making the rounds; the most famous one shows our sweet-faced son with his long blond peiyos wearing his tefillin and embracing a fellow student inside the beis midrash. The scene that met my eyes was reminiscent of the hushed tones and quiet before a funeral. Staff, parents and children were gathered in small pockets, alternately hugging each other, crying and just standing around silently. For the past two weeks, journalists had been allowed inside the yeshivah but were not permitted to interview any of the students. After the shocking discovery of the boys’ bullet-riddled bodies under a pile of rocks in an open field, only a single wellknown frum photographer, Gershon Ellinson, was granted access. I dropped my son off at the gate leading to his dorm. In the meantime, hearing music, I walked down the narrow road to see where it was coming from. Being familiar with the area, I wondered if a wedding was taking place. Indeed, it was. Despite the hole in our hearts, life must continue. (The next day I found out that not only had there been a wedding, but the chasan was an alumnus of Mekor Chaim, and the mesader kiddushin was its rosh yeshivah, Rav Dov Zinger.) At that moment my cell phone rang. My “baby” was waiting for me. I rejoined him in front of the beis midrash and peered inside, asking him where Naftali and Gilad had sat. He pointed to the centrally-located aron kodesh and told me that they had shared a bench in front of it.

I imagine all three boys now have a front row seat in Heaven. What could I say to my child? Sadly, his innocence had been lost even before these tragic killings. Wars, intifadas, terrorist bombings, the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif and rockets landing in Israel are some of the events that have impacted upon our son. My childhood in small-town America was certainly very different from Yisrael Meir’s childhood. There were a few sad events that I remember. When I was eight years old my grandfather died, followed by the death of my grandmother when I was 13. I guess my parents wanted to shield us from sad events because we kids didn’t attend the funerals. The reality in Israel, though, is that children cannot be shielded from death. Here, it’s a fact of life. After the boys were kidnapped and no one knew their fate, everyone at the yeshivah shed many tears. I was in frequent contact with Yisrael Meir, who shared some of the goings-on. On the Monday night after the kidnapping I visited the yeshivah to get a sense of the prevailing atmosphere. The benches had been moved into a circle and an impromptu stage had been set up in the middle. (Some popular religious musicians were coming that night to perform.) Several boys were playing recorders and there was heartfelt singing of Jewish songs to raise the spirits of the bochurim. A day or so later, when I called our son to hear how he was dealing with the crisis, he told me that he was feeling better emotionally because the rabbis had said that G-d must be served with joy, and they couldn’t continue being sad all day long. While people literally showered the yeshivah with cakes, drinks, challahs for Shabbos and other goodies, the bachurim went out to do various acts of kindness.

For instance, some of them stood outside a local supermarket and asked people to buy food items they would then pack up and send to the soldiers in Chevron who were conducting searches for the boys. At the massive rally of support in Tel Aviv this past Sunday, Racheli Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali, requested that whatever the outcome, people remain united and continue to perform acts of kindness. Many people had taken upon themselves to do a mitzvah in the merit of the abducted boys or strengthen the performance of one they were already doing. When I accompanied my son back to yeshivah on Monday night I hadn’t planned on hanging around, but a lot of other parents were there so we all joined the boys in the beis midrash. At first melodies were sung and then Rabbi Dov Zinger spoke. Then there were short talks by various rabbis to strengthen and comfort the students, interspersed with more singing. The head of security in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion also addressed the crowd. Afterwards I walked Yisrael Meir to his ninth-grade classroom, where a couple of counselors would also be talking to them. On my way home during the wee hours of the morning, I passed the infamous bus stop where the boys were abducted. A banner had been draped inside. On the left it read in Hebrew, “The Nation of Israel Lives.” In the middle were the words, “[Mother] Rachel Cries for Her Children,” and on the right were the names Naftali, Eyal and Gilad. A small crowd had gathered there to sing songs and light candles, but mostly to come together in a time of gar gantuan loss. I continued on to the Gush Etzion Junction, where another crowd had gathered at the traffic circle.

One of the first things that had to be decided was where the boys would be buried. Would each one have his own funeral locally, or would all three be buried next to each other in a central location? The decision was ultimately made to have separate hespedim in each of the boys’ hometowns and sideby-side burial and hespedim in the Modi’in cemetery. Four buses from Yisrael Meir’s yeshivah made their way to Nof Ayalon, the Fraenkel family’s hometown near Kibbutz Sha’alvim, off the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway. Thousands of mourners had come to hear the moving hespedim, with many more listening by radio, computer and television. (I myself was sitting at home weeping and listening to the radio coverage, which alternated between Nof Ayalon, Talmon and Elad.) At first, the bachurim from Mekor Chaim sat silently under a tree, but when the hespedim began they stood up. Among the speakers were Naftali’s parents, grandfather, Rav Dov Zinger, and the rav of the community. Everyone then proceeded to the Modi’in cemetery, a half-hour walk from where the buses left them off. Another one of our children walked so far that by the time he got to the funeral most of the hespedim were over. Among those who addressed the crowd were the chief rabbis and Rav Dov Zinger, who spoke lovingly about Naftali and Gilad. Although he had not personally met Eyal, he spoke about him as well.  The families had requested that the burial be conducted only in the presence of the family and close friends. The crowd honored their wish. Each of our children who attended the funeral had a different story to tell. Yisrael Meir is by nature a quiet and sensitive child, so he didn’t volunteer any information about the experience. What he did say, though, was that he was very moved by the waves of singing that rippled through the tremendous crowd, which was estimated at over 100,000. Everyone had braved the intense heat, traffic jams and long treks (it took our son-in-law an hour and 40 minutes just to get back to his car) in order to demonstrate their pain, support and unity during this tragic time. Boys, you touched the hearts of millions and merited that so many Jews performed so many mitzvos. May your memories be for a blessing.

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