U.S. Jews take up cause of missing Israeli teens

The Reform movement posted a prayer. Chabad asked followers to pledge to do a mitzvah. The Jewish Federations of North America set up a Web page to express solidarity.

The disappearance of three Israeli teens in the West Bank last week is being taken as a call to action uniting many disparate elements of the American Jewish community.

Vigil for the missing Israeli teens outside of the Israeli Consulate in New York on June 16 photo/jta-getty images-spencer platt

At synagogues across America spanning the major denominations, Jews recited psalms or offered special prayers for the safe return of the teens, echoing a prayer rally held June 15 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. On June 16, demonstrators held a rally in New York opposite the Israeli Consulate.

“I have a 16-year-old myself,” said Steven Levine of Brooklyn at the rally. “It could have been any of us. They’re my brothers, they’re my children. That’s why I’m here.”

The missing teens — Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 — were last seen at a hitchhiking post near Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement bloc in the West Bank. Shaer and Frenkel were on their way home from Mekor Chaim, a residential yeshiva high school in Kfar Etzion run by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Yifrach, who met up with them at the hitchhiking post, was on his way home from a pre-army yeshiva program near Hebron.

Steinsaltz, in a statement issued June 15, called the kidnapping “a shocking, painful and frightening event” and asked Jews around the world to recite psalms and pray for their safe return.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed Hamas for kidnapping the teens and said he was holding the Palestinian Authority responsible.

American Jewish organizations were swift in their condemnation of the kidnapping.

“We are outraged by this senseless crime,” the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council said in a statement. “It is heartbreaking that innocent children have been taken captive. Our community stands in solidarity with the people of Israel and supports Israeli efforts to bring these boys back to their families.”

Among American Jews in general, the focus has been on supporting the teens’ families, largely through prayer. On June 17, the JCRC and the Board of Rabbis of Northern California urged all Bay Area rabbis to address the kidnapping in their Shabbat sermons this weekend, and include prayers for their safe return.

Thousands gather at the Western Wall to pray for the release of the teenagers. photo/jns-flash90-yonatan sindel

On New York’s Upper West Side June 16, the Manhattan Day School organized a prayer vigil that drew hundreds of people representing multiple Orthodox synagogues and organizations.

The Orthodox Union organized a round-the-clock “virtual vigil” for members of OU-affiliated programs to sign up for 30-minute slots to learn Torah, pray and perform mitzvahs to merit the safe return of the boys.

The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly released a prayer for the welfare of the teens composed by Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum of Jerusalem’s Zion congregation.

“Do all that must be done so that relief, rescue and life may be the lot of the young men, Ya’akov Naftali ben Rahel [Frenkel], Gil-ad Micha’el ben Bat-Galim [Shaer] and Eyal ben Iris Teshura [Yifrach],” the prayer says. “Act on their behalf, Lord, take up their cause without delay, and may You grant them life and blessing forevermore.”

Meanwhile, a social media campaign with the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys has gone viral, generating voluminous tweets and shares. The effort was inspired by the #BringBackOurGirls online campaign demanding the return of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped in April by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

American Jews mobilized during the long captivity of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was held by Hamas for more than five years after a Palestinian attack on his post along the Israel-Gaza border in June 2006.

In Shalit’s case, it became clear relatively early on that he was alive, and the Israeli government became the target of a public campaign to negotiate with Hamas for his release. The government eventually cut a deal, agreeing to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit’s freedom in October 2011.

In the case of the teens, at this point it’s not clear who kidnapped them or whether they are still alive.

Some commentators have suggested that Israeli policies are to blame for the kidnapping, noting that the teens studied at a yeshiva in a settlement. But Rabbi Michael Lerner of Berkeley, editor of the left-wing Tikkun magazine, condemned efforts to rationalize the kidnapping.

“We reject any attempt to imply that somehow these acts are understandable given the oppressive conditions faced by the perpetrators,” he wrote.

The teens, Lerner continued, “were not the perpetrators or the creators of the Occupation. They were children doing what their parents had brought them up to do and to be.”

JTA’s Miriam Moster and Ami Eden and J. staff contributed to this report.