Amid Calls for Revenge, Rachelle Fraenkel Is a Light in This Dark Place

While mourning the death of her teenage son Naftali Fraenkel this week, his mother still found the time and strength to comfort others.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Avi (C) and Rachelle (R) Fraenkel and their son (L), hold a reading close to the body of their son Naftali Frenkel, 16, (unseen) during his funeral service, July 1, 2014.
Avi (C) and Rachelle (R) Fraenkel and their son (L), hold a reading close to the body of their son Naftali Frenkel, 16, (unseen) during his funeral service, July 1, 2014.Credit: AFP
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

Few were those that came empty-handed. Many, in the oppressive heat of Friday morning, came bearing trays of watermelon, sliced into bite sizes in advance, toothpicks carefully stuck in each piece. Others brought homemade cakes wrapped in tinfoil, the icings mostly melted. And some showed up clutching six-packs of soft drinks that they stacked up on the wobbly makeshift tables, near the stacks of miniature books of psalms.

Friends came, and strangers too. Neighbors milled around the tent in the backyard, unpiling more and more plastic white chairs for the endless stream of visitors, and trying, like everyone else, to do or say something helpful.

Orthodox rabbis in long beards and heavy black coats murmured condolences. Teenage yeshiva students in colorful T-shirts and shorts, knitted kippas and tzitzit sticking out, their beat-up sandals dangling off their feet, sat together and told stories of their absent friend. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, making his third visit to Nof Ayalon in as many weeks, came in and just sat for a while. A delegation of Druze leaders arrived to pay respects. Soldiers in uniform bowed their heads. A scrawny stray kitten meandered between everyone’s feet.

And in the middle of it all sat Rachelle and Avi Fraenkel, whose 16-year-old son Naftali was kidnapped along with Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrah on June 12, and who was found, murdered, 18 days later, under a pile of rocks outside Hebron. Here they were, sitting shivah on low chairs, clasping the hands of all those knelt down before them to offer words of support and love – and smiling upon them.

“Of course I remember you,” Rachelle said gently, over and again, as one person after the next, hour after hour, reached out to touch her hands or face or embrace her. “Welcome,” she said. “Thank you so much for coming,” she repeated. “We will meet again on more joyful days,” she promised one heavily pregnant woman, who arrived with two beautiful redhead toddlers in tow and eyes brimming with tears.

Rachelle, a mother of seven – who buried her second-born on Tuesday – has become, in the last few weeks, something of a light to many here who are searching for a way out of a very dark place. A model of profound faith, restraint and gentleness, she has remained a steady and calming voice, even as the chorus of those calling for revenge and spouting hatred in the name of God and religion has increased.

The dual U.S.-Israeli citizen grabbed the collective attention early on, telling a group of teenage girls praying with her at the Western Wall after the kidnappings that “God is not our servant,” and seemingly bracing them, already at the very beginning, for the worst. “Prayer is worthy,” she made clear, “no matter what the outcome.”

Much later, at her son’s funeral, she took the time to thank the many soldiers who had been searching for the young men: “Dear soldiers,” she said. “You promised to bring them back to us, and you did that.”

At the big rally to “bring back the boys” in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, less than 24 hours before the boys’ bodies were finally discovered, it was Rachelle who, in front of the tens of thousands gathered, extended the three mothers’ appreciation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as well – “along with everyone else with a conscience, who realizes children should be outside the game” – and thanked him for denouncing the kidnappings.

And then, after the funerals, when 16-year-old Palestinian Israeli Mohammed Abu Khdeir was shoved into a van outside a Jerusalem mosque and soon after found burnt to death in the forest – in what most believe was a revenge attack by extremist Jews – Rachelle and her family spoke up immediately and clearly.

“If a young Arab really was murdered for nationalist reasons, this is a horrifying and shocking act,” said the statement they put out from their shivah tent. “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification, no pardon and no atonement for murder.”

A scion of a learned family, Rachelle, who goes by Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel professionally, is a respected halakhic authority herself – a rarity in the Orthodox world here. She teaches Jewish law at two highly regarded women’s institutions in Jerusalem, and has been a leader within the local religious feminist movement for years. As such, in this arena too, she managed to offer an alternative voice in recent days.

At her son’s funeral, Rachelle stood up and, without fanfare, recited the Kaddish prayer for the dead alongside her husband. Her feminine voice rang out clearly as Chief Rabbi David Lau, dozens of Orthodox Knesset members and the thousands of others gathered responded with “Amen” – forever changing, many pundits are arguing, the way in which the participation of Orthodox women in this ritual is considered.

“This woman is more special than you can imagine,” said her friend and fellow halakhic authority Malka Puterkovsky.

At Rachelle’s request, Puterkovsky gave a short class at the shivah on Friday, expanding on some of Rachelle’s recent comments about prayer and expectations. “We are often taught that if we just pray hard enough and well enough, God will grant us our wishes,” Puterkovsky told those who came to hear her speak – mainly women in head coverings, long skirts and shirts – in a second tent set up outside the Fraenkels’ house. “But it is not like that. Our relationship with God is more complicated.

“How do we educate our children to pray with all their hearts and souls, but in parallel to also know that the response to all those prayers might be ‘No’” she asked. “This is one of the most difficult challenges of faith – and yet we just have to accept that we have no right to make demands. All we can do is be confident that our prayers are heard.

“Faith,” she concluded, “is stronger than us. What is incredible is that we continue to believe, despite everything.”

As Friday wore on, those remaining in the Fraenkel backyard began drifting out, leaving the family alone for Shabbat. The visitors got into their cars and navigated their way through the single-lane streets of this small village of 430 families, situated just within Israel’s 1967 borders, toward the highways and onward toward home.

Perhaps, lost in thought, these visitors might have missed seeing the lone hitchhiker with his thumb out at the roundabout directly outside Nof Ayalon. A young man, maybe 16, maybe younger, trying to get home before dark, and wearing a T-shirt reading, “Jews! Let’s win!” In any case, for a while, no one slowed down to give him a ride.

Rachelle and Avi Fraenkel, parents of Naftali, one of three teens kidnapped and killed, at his funeral, July 1, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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