Kidnapped: When Psalms Are Not Enough

Those in Israel’s religious community who think that salvation comes only from prayers fool themselves and those they lead. Faith can’t substitute safe transport for their children.

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Participants in a Western Wall prayer rally for the three kidnapped teenagers, held June 15, 2014.
Participants in a Western Wall prayer rally for the three kidnapped teenagers, held June 15, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman

Let’s begin with the indisputable: We all earnestly hope that the three young kidnapped boys are found alive and well and repatriated safely. In addition, we all agree that the villains here are the kidnappers of the three teenagers, two of whom are only sixteen, whose only offence was that they were Jews and perhaps that they stupidly took a ride at night from strangers. Those who perpetrated this heinous crime, whatever their motive, deserve to be punished, and those who sent and support them in this misdeed deserve no less.

Having said that, I think there are others who share significant responsibility for what has happened. Of course, there is the person staffing the police hotline who took the call from one of the boys who reported being kidnapped and waited for nearly five critical hours before reporting it to the police in the field and the army. But what about the yeshiva?

Parents who send their sons to this school (and others like it) and the students themselves have the right to expect that the institution educating their children will also safeguard them. That includes providing a secure environment in which they study and live, but also should include providing secure transport between the school and the nearest bus stop or other public transportation. This is especially true when the yeshiva is not within reasonable walking distance of such a stop. It is absolutely mandatory when the location in which the institution finds itself is one where the surrounding population bears it and its students ill-will, as was and is certainly the case in the Mekor Chaim Yeshiva of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, located on a hilltop adjacent to Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the West Bank.

For the school to depend on students (or anyone) finding their own ways to public transport by hitchhiking is outrageous and the height of irresponsibility.

When, paying thousands of dollars, I sent my sons to yeshivas such as this one in regions not too different, I worried mightily every time they left or returned to the school and wondered why my tuition did not cover a shuttle, but my concerns were often laughed off by those at the school who said it would be too expensive. To be sure, I worried even more when my sons served in the IDF, but the army long since recognized that it was responsible for its soldiers’ safety when they were on the way to and from their bases, and not only forbade hitchhiking but also has increasingly provided secure transport to bus and train stops. Yeshivas, for some reason I cannot understand, have not done the same nor have they accepted that they have no less responsibility for those who fill their benches. The argument often made that such shuttle services would cost too much is totally unreasonable. If these schools do not have enough money to protect their students when they come in and go out, they should close their doors.

Has there been any soul-searching by these schools in response to the kidnappings? What have the yeshivas, and much of the religious community, done? Their big response is to recite Psalms – and encourage others to do so too. This reminds me of a joke I heard during the 1967 war when people described a scene in a Haredi yeshiva where no one was serving in the army. One of the rabbis reputedly took his students to task for doing nothing to protect the country. “Don’t do nothing,” he shouted, “Say tehillim [psalms].”

While I am a genuine believer in the power of prayer and of Psalms in particular (which I recite daily), I also believe that to do this and nothing else is a self-serving shirking of responsibility and lets these schools and community fool themselves and others into thinking they are doing all that they can and should be doing.

Too often this population has used the idea of prayer and salvation by faith to replace this-worldly action that would actually make a difference. Along with this prayerful attitude comes a smug feeling that “we” are truly doing what “needs” to be done. This is, one should recall, the basic attitude of the Neturei Karta, whose very name derives from their argument that their religious activity has made them and not the IDF and the forces of the state the “Guardians of the City.” This is the same kind of thinking that apparently infected those religious leaders who told their flocks that prayer would avert the Gaza disengagement the day before it happened, and who tell them now that prayer now will work just as well.

The truth is that those who think that their prayers and Psalms are sufficient fool themselves and those they lead. While they call out to God, they should also be mounting campaigns for and collecting resources to provide secure transport to prevent this sort of tragedy, so that not a single other student is picked off by a bullet, knife or kidnapper while trying to get a bus home or to the yeshiva. God helps those who help themselves.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.