They were sons, brothers, friends and students. And they reminded us that
we are all each other’s brothers and sisters.

Last month, the Jewish world mourned the death of three innocent Israeli yeshiva students who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas operatives in the West Bank on June 12 while hitchhiking home from their yeshiva for Shabbat. The boys were Naftali Fraenkel, 16;
Gil-ad Sha’ar, 16; and Eyal Yifrach, 19. The teenagers were fatally shot shortly after they got into a car driven by Palestinian Arabs near the settlement of Alon Shevut south of Jerusalem. Gil-ad called for help from his cell phone minutes after the abduction, but the call was dismissed as a prank, thus delaying the onset of the search efforts.

When news of the missing teens broke, the Israeli military and security forces embarked on a thorough and intensive search as the Jewish nationheld its breath and prayed for the boys’ safety. During the ensuing 18 days, Rachel Fraenkel, mother of Naftali, passionately advocated on behalf of the three families in international forums, speaking to a range of media and appearing before the United Nations Human Rights Council. Sadly, the teenagers’ bodies were found 18 days after their abduction, on Monday afternoon, June 30th, under a pile of rocks in an open field just 15 miles from where they had last been seen.

Eyal Yifrach, the oldest of the three teens, was from Elad, a religious community in central Israel. With the voice of a songbird, he had sung at his cousin’s wedding while masterfully playing guitar. Everyone’s brother, Eyal was known for watching out forthe other kids in the neighborhood. Eyal had studied in the pre-military Torah learning program in Eli before transferring to Yeshivat Shavei Hevron in the Jewish section of Hevron. He was constantly doing acts of kindness, such as leaving a jar of cookies at the yeshiva to share.

Naftali Fraenkel was the second of seven children and lived in Nof Ayalon, a religious community on the 1949 armistice line between Israel and the West Bank. He loved baseball, music and playing guitar, and was known for his tenderness, compassion, spirituality and passion for religious Zionism. News reports described him as a positive thinker who took joy in small things and had a cynical sense of humor. His grandparents – Rachel’s parents –
made aliya to Israel in the 1950s, and Naftali held joint American and Israeli citizenship. His mother, Rachel, a beloved educator and acclaimed scholar, is the director of the Advanced Halakha Program at Matan, a high-level women’s institute of Jewish studies in Jerusalem, and also teaches at Nishmat, another women’s institution of high-level Jewish learning in Jerusalem.

Gil-ad Sha’ar lived in the settlement of Talmon in the central West Bank. He was a leader in Bnei Akiva, a popular religious youth movement, and his friends described him as an honest and caring young man who always sought sound advice. Gil-ad loved both learning and volunteering, and involved himself in many acts of hesed for his community and society.

Gil-ad’s sensitivity and kindness shone already at the young age of 10. On a Facebook page dedicated to the three teens, a former teacher tells that when Gil-ad was 10 years old he began attending a resource class for children with learning disabilities. After several weeks, his teacher told him he did not need a remedial class and he should not come. To the teacher’s surprise, Gil-ad insisted. He told the teacher that his friend had a learning disability but did not want to attend the remedial class unless Gil-ad was with him. “I told him that it was no big deal and that I also take remedial classes. That is why I come to you – so that my friend will not be embarrassed,” Gil-ad told the teacher.

An only son with five sisters, Gil-ad loved to bake. His mother said she spelled Gil-ad with a hyphen, to mean, “forever happy,” as opposed the name “Gil-ad,” which means “monument.” Unfortunately, Gil-ad will likely have a monument erected in his honor, and the eternal joy which he was to have brought to his family was instead turned to grief.

It was Gil-ad who had the bravery to make the call for help. His father, Ofir Shaar, was reported by the Haaretznewspaper as saying, “From the moment I heard your brave whisper, I heard a great voice and I stood taller. What resourcefulness, bravery and strength [for] someone not yet 17. My tallitis wrapped around your innocent body before you are interred into the land of Israel that you loved so much. You are a part of the family of Israel. Your last message and ascent to the heavens have ended the divides and united a whole nation.”

“HeHad No Enemies”

Rabbi Ralph Tawil’s son, Shlomo, knew Gil-ad and Naftali from Yeshivat Mekor Haim, a yeshiva high school located in Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz in the Gush Etzion region between Hevron and Jerusalem. Mekor Haim is renowned throughout Israel’s religious Zionist community, and combines traditional learning with a unique Hassidic flare, including the study of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Gil-ad and Naftali were a grade under Shlomo Tawil, who just graduated from the yeshiva.

“We learned a lot of Gemara during the day,” Shlomo says. “It is an open yeshiva, where the students are encouraged to talk and open up. Our school is like a family. We learn outside, even under a tree, if we want.”

Shlomo describes Naftali as a “very serious student,” who “woke up very early and ran the vatikin[sunrise] minyanat 5:30am.” Shlomo fondly recalls, “After the day’s learning, I saw him in the betmidrash. He often stayed until 10pm. Naftali was very  friendly and a very serious student. He had no enemies. He knew how to connect with people and had a nice group of friends.”

According to Israel’s Channel 10 Nana website, Naftali and Gil-ad recently returned from a two-day class trip in which they participated in a human-pyramid contest and won first prize.

A Nation Mourns

The moment the news broke of the discovery of the three bodies, at approximately 8:30pm Israel time, the Jewish nation was plunged into a state of mourning. Jews across the globe, who had cried and prayed for the boys’ safe return, now cried for their loss and prayed for their souls and for their families. Throughout Israel and the Jewish world, candlelight vigils were held, Tehillim was recited, and mournful songs were sung, as the nation that had been united in prayer was now united in grief.

The three boys were laid to rest the day after their bodies were found, on Tuesday, July 1. The funerals began in their hometowns – Gil-ad’s in Talmon, Eyal’s in Elad, and Naftali’s in Nof Ayalon.

Throughout the crisis, there was talk of national unity, of terrorism, of politics and of sacrifice. But when Rachel Fraenkel spoke about her son outside her synagogue, recalling how much Naftali loved music, it was clear that at its core, this was a tragedy of three families who had lost their boys. In an extraordinary expression of faith, Rachel proclaimed, “From the very first day, we said to ourselves that even if it ends badly, Gd gave us an abundance of blessings. Our prayers were never for naught.”

Naftali’s father,  Avraham Fraenkel, began with tzidduk hadin– the affirmation of Gd’s justice. “The ways of Hashem are hidden from us. We don’t know why you were taken, but your death has led this nation forward. They tell us there hasn’t been such a feeling in Am Yisraelfor a long time. The…love and solidarity are unfathomable. Three boys that were murdered in cold blood have forged a path into the fine chords that make up our nation. They have caused us all to be better people, better Jews. The ways of Hashem are hidden, but your path has led the entire nation forward, and that serves as a source of comfort to us.”

After the eulogies, Rachel rose to recite the kaddishtogether with her husband, Avi, and their younger son, Tzvi Amitai. Ashkenazic
ChiefRabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, the dean of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, together with the Knesset members who attended the funeral, responded, “Amen.”

When the ceremonies in Talmon, Nof Ayalon and Elad concluded, the boys, joined by their families, friends, public officials, and tens of thousands of fellow Jews, were brought to the cemetery in the central Israeli city of Modiin, where they were interred side-by-side. The speakers emphasized the unifying effect the tragedy had upon the Jewish nation, how Israel came together in prayer and then in grief, putting their differences aside to focus on that which unites us. They also described the inspiration that the entire  nation drew from the extraordinary strength and dignity exhibited by the three families throughout this unfathomably excruciating ordeal.

“A whole nation stood together and got a reminder of who we are, why we are here and, no less, what great strengths are found within us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, addressing the victims’ families. “The light shining from you stood out all the more against the horrible darkness of those who seek our souls.”

Even after the funerals, Jews around the world continued showing their solidarity and sharing in the families’ grief. Prayer vigils were held in synagogues and public squares around the globe. Trees were planted in the boys’ memory. Several Torah scrolls have been donated, including one which will be used at the Kotel (see sidebar). A Crown Heights couple named their newborn  triplets after the three victims.

Down the road from the site of the kidnapping, near the Gush Etzion Junction, two activists, Yehudit Katsover and Nadia Matar, together with a group of supporters, cleared a hill and made it into a camping and picnic site. The hill was renamed Givat Oz v’Gaon –
“Hill of Strength and Pride.” The word “gaon” is an acrostic for the names of the three boys – Gil-ad, Eyal, Naftali. The project, which was undertaken with the backing and support of the Gush Etzion Municipality, was aimed at demonstrating Israel’s resolve to continue the historic process of the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland, undeterred by our enemies. Several volunteers, including Ruthie Lieberman of Alon Shevut, and her daughter Merav, planted new trees at the site in memory of the three boys.

After the kidnapping, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Israel’s security forces to spare no efforts to find the killers. Scores of arrests were made in Hevron and the surrounding Palestinian towns and villages, and the Israeli Defense Forces publicized the pictures and names of the two kidnappers. As of the writing of this article, however, they have yet to befound.

Just days after this tragedy, the Jewish nation was forced to confront yet another grave crisis – incessant rocket fire from Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. The sense of unity and togetherness that pervaded the Jewish world during the days ofprayer and then mourning for Gil-ad, Naftali and Eyal was now channeled toward prayer and resolve in the face of a brutal enemy bent on terrorizing the Jewish State. Together with the Sha’ar, Fraenkel and Yifrach families, and all Am Yisrael, we turn in prayer to Gd and beseech Him to bless us all with peace and joy, and that our tears will soon be changed to celebration as we come together to greet Mashiah, speedily and in our days, amen.