U.S. Jews Honor Slain Teens - and Worry About Israel

Rabbis, community leaders and politicians mix support and calls for action with message that revenge 'is not our way.'

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Memorial service for Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel at Beth Elohim synagogue in Wellesley, Mass.
Memorial service for Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel at Beth Elohim synagogue in Wellesley, Mass.Credit: Elan Kawesch

BOSTON - Images of the faces of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel loomed high above nearly 800 solemn Boston-area Jews in just one of many memorial services held for the slain Israeli teens across the U.S. this week.

On a podium in the huge open synagogue with a wide window looking out on New England greenery, Rabbi Benjamin Samuels addressed a crowd which included representatives of every religious stream, Orthodox clergy like himself alongside Reform women wearing kippot. Samuels called on the crowd to deliver what he called the three S’s - solidarity to join with the families of the victims and the people in Israel, support “for the state of Israel in its strategic response” to the murders and significance - “we must find ways to give meaning to their lives and deaths.” He was just one in a series of speakers that included rabbis, community leaders and politicians, the speeches punctuated by singing and meditative prayer.

Large events like these to share communal pain, and pledge solidarity with Israel when tragedy strikes, are standard operating procedure for the Jewish establishment and the pro-Israel world. But at this event, lying underneath the usual declarations of support and solidarity at the Wednesday night event was a strong undercurrent of worry. Though the stated purpose was to pay tribute to the three boys, it was impossible to ignore the events that were unfolding in the aftermath of their murder - the disturbing news of the slaying of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem, and reports of mobs in Israel.

Congressman Steven Lynch said, “I do take comfort from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for people to not take the law into their own hands” and noted that “Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem said, in counseling against vigilante groups or revenge killing of innocent people - 'that is not our way, that is not our way.' We must make every effort to prevent further violence, revenge will not lessen the grief everyone is feeling this evening.”

Veteran Jewish leader Barry Shrage, who has served as president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies - CJP - the Boston Jewish Federation since 1987, referred to the killing of Muhammed Abu-Khdeir. “We have no idea of what happened. But one thing is very very clear. If god forbid, this was the act of a Jewish person, that person’s name will be remembered as a curse, not as a blessing. That person’s name will be among those who desecrated the Torah and everything that the Jewish people stand for. No one will hand out candies, and take joy in the death of that child, celebrate their child’s murderous actions. Instead, we will mourn together with that family.”

Unlike the New York memorial service on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which was attended by relatives of Naftali Fraenkel, there were no family members in Boston. But there was a local connection to one of the victims. Rabbi Samuels told the crowd, how, not long ago, in early May, an impressive female scholar named Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel from Israel arrived in Newton, Massachusetts to be a visiting speaker at several synagogues, among them Shaarei Tefila. She had recently been named as the head of a new advanced halacha program for women in Jerusalem - offering them the equivalent of advanced yeshiva studies. Her trip had been intended to share her knowledge and give exposure to the new program. Samuels told Haaretz that during her sojourn in Boston, “She spoke brilliantly. Obviously never have imagined that she would ever have to perform with the composure and courage and clarity of vision that she has as a spokesperson for the mothers and families of the boys - but all of the ingredients were there when she spoke to our synagogue.”

The toughest talk at the service was made by Israeli consul-general to New England Yehuda Yakov, who reminded his audience of the fact that “Israel still lives in the jungle. As much as we want to wish it away, the jungle is still there.”

The threats that surround the country mean that “along with start-up Israel and the multicultural mosaic, we also have to be Fortress Israel, and I don’t say that with any glee, that’s a fact.” His rallying cry to the American Jews in the sanctuary: “We still need you desperately, we need you to understand, we need you to identify and we still need you to explain.”

Shrage struck a similar theme, saying that the Jewish state “is in the midst of a dangerous neighborhood - and we can’t expect the state of Israel to behave like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We live in a blessed place. They live in an extremely dangerous place. ”

“I urge you, I beg you - I pray that you will remember what your responsibility is tomorrow ... only we can stand up for Israel, we are in the catbird seat." He entreated them to “not be silent if someone says something about Israel that is negative, jarring, or offensive” because “we are what stands between Israel and destruction in many ways” and that without U.S. support, Israel would be in “triple and quadruple amount of danger” and “it is incumbent upon us to speak up so that blood will not be, god forbid, on our hands.”

Memorial service for Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel at Beth Elohim synagogue in Wellesley, Mass.Credit: Elan Kawesch
Memorial service for Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel at Beth Elohim synagogue in Wellesley, Mass.Credit: Elan Kawesch

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