For the past three weeks, life in Israel seemed to have hit a pause. A heavy cloud descended on the nation as a rain of prayers poured forth from a people united in hope and some, in foreboding. From the moment that the report came out that three teenage Israeli boys had been abducted, hitchhiking home, on Thursday night, June 12, the quick-paced atmosphere of this tiny country slowed down.
The boys; Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Frenkel, 16 and Gil-ad Sha’ar, 16, were beloved members of their families, schools and respective communities. Naftali’s aunt, Ittael Frenkel told me two weeks ago during an interview that “These are very hard days. But we are very optimistic. We really believe that with all this help, all the prayers that the country is praying for them, we hope to see them home soon.”
“Naftali is a sweet kid — a combination of fun and serious,” his aunt told me in a soft-spoken voice. “He was supposed to take a biology exam tomorrow.” I remember the only time Ittael smiled during the interview was when she described her nephew, lovingly calling him “delicious,” an “amazing kid.”
In my work as a journalist covering Israel in the past seven years, the tragic saga of these three boys struck a very deep chord with me, as it did with millions of other Israelis and people around the world. I didn’t personally know the boys, nor their families, mentors or classmates previously. But as I interviewed and wrote about them, I felt that I was given an opportunity to get know three special individuals whose families and communities further inspired my faith in the goodness of humanity.
Across Israel, prayer rallies were held at public squares and bus stops almost every day. It felt as if we were all praying for three abducted family members, whose disappearance was the main topic of conversation on public transport, in coffee shops, at work and around the dinner table. During the Sabbath services on the weekend, special prayers were said in synagogues across the Jewish state, with Psalms 120 and 121, designated as the appropriate psalms to be recited for the boys’ rescue.
Until the very last day, Sunday, June 29, more than 10,000 people gathered together at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to pray and sing for the safe return of the boys. The parents spoke as did the newly elected president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who asked that all religious leaders around the world, in churches and in mosques, join in prayer for the Israeli teens.
No one could know that the very next day, the boys’ bodies would be discovered in a field north of Hebron, in a poorly dug grave hidden by bushes not far from the site of the Gush Etzion junction from where they were abducted.
No one could know that for nearly three weeks, the bodies of Eyal, Naftali and Gil-ad, had been abandoned after being shot by Hamas terrorists, who struck at the heart of a nation that so values its children.
“We cry, but these are tears of strength,” said Eyal’s father, Uri, weeping as he spoke about his son before the joint-funeral today. “You were such an example to your family. Your brothers are missing you, Eyal. We are loving people. We will not break. We will not give up.”
“Eyal, please whisper in God’s ear and ask him to give us strength to cope,” asked Uri Yifrach in a breaking voice.
Hundreds of Israelis accompanied the families of the terror victims, as the funeral procession made its way to the Modi’in cemetery where the three boys were buried in a joint-funeral after their families held separate services and eulogies in their respective hometowns. Holding Israeli flags and supportive signs, regular citizens stood at junctions along the way showing their love and solidarity.
“We need each other on this day,” said Israel’s Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, speaking at Gilad’s Sha’ar’s wake in Talmon. “We need one another, not anger, we need no further split, we need love, a common language. We are mourning a life which will not be actualized.”
“The song of their lives was stopped. They were kidnapped and murdered just because they are Jews,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said at the service for Eyal Yifrach in the boy’s hometown of Elad. “Even in these hours, our security forces are looking for their murderers and we will not rest until we find them.”
Naftali’s father, Avi and his mother, Racheli also spoke of their son, who is an American citizen at his eulogy in Kibbutz Sha’alvim near their hometown of Nof Ayalon. “Three young boys killed in cold blood, in a shared fate, which in turn can only make us better people. Your death will lead this nation together forward,” said Avi Frenkel.
“Those people were out there hunt, and you were those chosen to be God’s poster children, the opposite of what those killers represent,” said Racheli. “We are thankful for the army, police and security forces that promised to bring the boys back — and they did. We will learn to sing without you. We will always hear your voice within us, Naftali.”
Israel’s heart is heavy tonight. There is an overwhelming sadness as the nation attempts to process the difficult end to a heart wrenching chapter that has left many struggling for hope and for answers.
But as the grandfather, Ezra, of 16-year-old Gilad Sha’ar said: “I have one wish for all the people that believed the last three weeks since the kidnapping that the boys, would return alive: do not stop praying and believing.”