At teens funeral, personal grief and national solidarity merge

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They were their mothers’ sons. They were all of our sons.

The joint funeral of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrah on July 1 in Modi’in provided a capstone to a harrowing ordeal that over 18 days united Israelis in hope and prayer. When the teens were found dead on June 30, their bodies lying half exposed in a field near Hebron, the national outpouring became one of grief and despair.

Rachel Frenkel cries at funeral for three murdered Jewish teens, including her son, Naftali, in the Modi’in cemetery on July 1. photo/jta-flash90

The country shared in the families’ tragedy. The families became national heroes.

“We prayed, each of us alone and all of us together, for a miracle,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres in his eulogy. “We prayed that we would see them return in peace to the families, to their homes and to us all. Sadly we were hit by the tragedy of their murder and a deep grief enveloped our people.”

When news of the boys’ death hit, Israelis looked lost, unsure how to proceed after more than two apprehensive weeks since the teens were kidnapped on June 12 while hitchhiking in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Etzion.

At Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square — the site just a day before of a packed, loud concert in solidarity with the boys’ families — a much more subdued vigil coalesced. A few men sat on the floor with guitars singing as several others lit candles that spelled out the boys’ names. Soon the crowd swelled to hundreds, all singing songs of mourning and comfort.

The next day, outside the synagogue in the rural central Israeli town of Shaalvim, a crowd of hundreds milled in an open field. They were the neighbors, the friends, the family of Naftali Frenkel.

Israelis light memorial candles on June 30 at the hitchhiking spot in the West Bank where the teens were abducted. photo/jta-flash90-yonatan sindel

Speaker after speaker told the largely religious Zionist crowd about the 16-year-old’s tenderness and the state’s resilience. Some mixed memories of the boy with calls for a forceful strike against Hamas, or for increased Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

When Naftali’s mother ascended the podium, the subdued crowd broke into tears. Since the boys went missing, Rachel Frenkel had become an increasingly fierce public advocate, speaking to a range of media and appearing at the United Nations. On this day, though, her words were directed to the Israeli people and to her son.

“From the very first day, we said to ourselves that even if it ends badly, God gave us an abundance of blessings,” she said. “Our prayers were never for naught.”

After the memorial service, the crowd boarded a fleet of buses bound for the nearby cemetery where the boys would be buried in a valley near Modi’in. Soon they joined a sea of thousands of people all streaming toward the graves.

“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.

Throughout the crisis, there was talk of national unity, of terrorism, of politics and of sacrifice. But when Rachel Frenkel spoke outside the synagogue in Shaalvim, remembering how much Naftali loved music, it was clear that at its core, this was a tragedy of three families who had lost their boys.

“Rest in peace, dear son,” Frenkel ended her eulogy. “We’ll learn to sing without you.”



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Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.