NOF AYALON, Central Israel — The Times of Israel interviewed Rachelle Fraenkel on Thursday afternoon, in a quiet garden near the family home at Nof Ayalon, two weeks after her son Naftali, 16, was kidnapped along with Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19.
We had contacted her because she has been saying that she wants the world in general, and the Jewish world in particular, to do more, to do whatever it can, to help ensure the safe return home of the abducted trio of Israeli teenagers. We thought we would be able to help her get that message disseminated.
Needless to say, this was anything but a routine interview. I said to her at the start that it would be as short or as long a conversation as she wished, and that she should only answer questions she wanted to answer. She answered everything, earnestly and directly. Some of her answers are remarkable.
Two weeks into an ordeal no parent should go through, Rachelle Fraenkel exudes an insistent optimism, and a fierce faith. But that faith is anything but blind or arrogant. In the midst of unthinkable suffering, she is concerned that others who pray for her and her family, and for the other families, not lose their faith if, as she puts it, she hears “the worst news.”
She is also strikingly sensitive to the wider implications of any possible deal with the terror group responsible for the kidnapping: The lady screaming from the rooftop, were it to come to that, should not be the one making the decisions, she says. Pause and internalize that position.
I want to keep this introduction short. I’ll highlight only that Fraenkel also noted that everyone has “their own way of sending positive energy,” and that “We each do what we can.”
So, let’s each do what we can.
I started our conversation by asking her a little about her family — their American background, how they came to Israel. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the ensuing interview — an interview that, in a better world, would not have taken place:
Rachelle Frankel: My family’s American. My parents currently live in Israel, but they’re originally American. My brother lives in New York, all my cousins live in New York. Most of them. Recently some have been coming here. I grew up without cousins because they were all in New York.
The Times of Israel: So you came here…?
My parents came. My siblings, some of them were born there, some were born here. I’m the youngest. Me and my 7 children are American citizens. I was born here. My parents are from New York and my whole extended family is from New York, and I’ve been back and forth. I’ve spent years there with my parents, and came back here, but most of my life I’ve been here.
What did you do before you got married and had children? And what’s your profession?
That’s an American question, you know. You know why? Because American women stop working when they have children.
I work, full-time in two places. I teach Jewish studies. There’s this whole world of Jewish Orthodox feminist rejuvenating Torah, through women joining the world of Torah studies. I do yoetzet halacha at Nishmat, which means I answer halachic questions, and I teach at Nishmat and I teach in Matan. There are places that teach gemara and halacha, and say ’til about 25 years ago, didn’t often do that, so I’m part of that.
So you’re pushing the envelope a little bit, with what women can do within the parameters…
It’s within the parameters of halacha. At this day and age, we’re there already. If you can be a neuroscientist, you can learn a little bit of halacha.
So you have 7 kids and Naftali is number? (Fraenkel signals). 2, ok. How is it split, boys and girls?
We have 2 boys, then 4 girls and my youngest is a boy.
And his older brother went to the same yeshiva?
He went to the same yeshiva, Mekor Chaim. It’s a high school, and he went there for 4 years, he just graduated last year, and Naftali was — is — in the 11 grade.
And your eldest did what next?
So now he’s postponing his army so he can learn some yeshiva, and eventually he’s going to go to the army.
And the choice of that yeshiva? Why there? Where it is physically (in the Etzion Bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem) is significant, obviously, but I’m sure that’s not the reason why you chose it. So why did you choose that yeshiva?
‘If I’ll have to fall apart, I can always do it later. If this turns out horribly, I won’t be giving any interviews then, so there will be enough time then. Right now I’m very optimistic’
First of all, it’s about 12 minutes away from Jerusalem, so it’s not distant from anything, and it’s totally [within the Israeli political] consensus, not that that’s relevant. Even if this would happen anywhere, it would be the same horror. But it happens to be total consensus, under any agreement. (Israel would likely insist on retaining control of the Etzion Bloc under a permanent accord with the Palestinians. DH)
The Yeshiva is a very, very special place. It’s a high school and a yeshiva. It’s whole educational concept is… hard to describe. It’s very sensitive and open minded and the goal is empowering the students, not turning them into something specific, but preparing what they are, and doing that through Torah, through high school studies. And the principal and the teachers are amazing.
And he loves going there?
And now let’s come to this terrible thing that happened two weeks ago. The way you’ve responded to it, to people watching from the outside, has been quite incredible, and perhaps inspiring to some people. You seem to be very strong, and I don’t know if that’s the way you feel, and how it is that you are able to be quite so strong.
Basically I feel that if I’ll have to fall apart, I can always do it later. If this turns out horribly, I won’t be giving any interviews then, so there will be enough time then. Right now I’m very optimistic. We have every reason to believe that they’re alive and what we need is patience. So an anxiety attack doesn’t help with patience, and neither does any other thing that would be considered more appropriate. But the truth is, I feel that we don’t have much choice. At this point, this is what we have to do.
I don’t know if anything else would be more appropriate.
No, just people say, “How can you be so [strong]?” So I say, do I love my kid any less because I’m not falling apart? No I’m yearning to see him. I can’t say it in so many words.
What are the sources of that optimism? What are the things that you’re being told?
It is absolutely clear that what was planned as far as the terrorists [are concerned] is a kidnapping that was meant to preserve [the three teens], to take care of them, for whatever their plans were. We have proofs of that. And there’s no contrary evidence — that they were terribly hurt, or anything like that. So between those two things, that the plan was this and that we have no contrary evidence, I’m very optimistic. Also, everybody assumes they’re alive. [Although] anything can go wrong.
How is the cooperation with the army and Shin Bet, and the political leadership? Has it been good?
‘Somewhere, probably in the Hebron area, there is a very good hiding place with three teenagers’
It has been excellent. We have our own home team, that has negotiators and psychologists, and army people, whatever, that keep us updated on anything. They have questions for us and we have questions for them. And they have been protecting us from all the disinformation that was spread on WhatsApp and whatever. There’s a lot of trust there and at this stage, we feel everybody is doing everything. I’m not naive, I have to be on top of things. I’m not blindly trusting anybody, but at this point we feel the utmost is being done.
You went to Geneva (to the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday) to ask the world to do more. What has already been done and what other things would you like to see done?
Somewhere, probably in the Hebron area, there is a very good hiding place with three teenagers, and some kidnappers are hiding, and they are hiding very, very well. I’m not sure what affects them directly. I don’t know that anything that I can do can directly affect them. But anything that has to do with the public knowing about it [might help], in the world, the governments around the world, of people condemning it, people requesting immediate release, and people pressuring the Palestinians, in Hamas. The Palestinians [of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas] have condemned it, very strongly. But Hamas etc, any leverages that could be used, could enable my government to continue doing what they’re trying to do, to find the boys, and could create, you know… We each do what we can.
I don’t know what may make a difference. I don’t know if somebody has leverage on his own government, and that government will, I don’t know, pressure Hamas. It depends. I really don’t know where it’s going to come from. The soldiers are out there, the intelligence [hierarchy] is out there, the government is working around the clock for this, and I have to do what I can.
So I went to the UN. The UN is a place where you get your 2 minutes, but once [the subject was raised] there, it’s more of a known topic, you get interviews with various… factors and people in the field. I don’t know where it’s going to come from, but we all must do what we can.
What was it like at the UN? All those hostile speeches before and after yours?
Before that, they didn’t know who I was, and then I left. So I had my 2 minutes. The point was to do my 2 minutes, very condensed. They shut off the microphone [if you go over the time limit]. And that [speech] was already broadcast in different places. It was a bit of a drama, it got some exposure, whatever. So once a topic is brought up there, it’s understood that it’s a legitimate cause. I didn’t even bother to listen to all the hatred that was around [in the form of vitriolic speeches against Israel delivered by other participants in the session].
One of the other mothers, I was quite struck, was yesterday very critical of the prime minister [over ending a hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners], and I was surprised by that because it’s taking a position that some people would endorse, some would not. And you [parents] hadn’t done that before, so how did that come to pass?
So you know how it works, she was saying 95%, “I trust them, they’re doing a great job, I’m empowering them, etc,” and then she had one critical sentence and that was the only thing caught.
We’re six people. Thank God we have a wonderful relationship. We have a common fate, and faith, and we’re getting along very well. But she’s her own person. She can say what she wants.
So you’re not like strategizing, and checking everything 3 times before you say it?
We’re trying not to be stupid, but we don’t have somebody telling us what to do, what to say or what not to say. She felt it was very important for her to say it, so she said it. And of course she means the 95% [that was supportive of what the government is doing] not less than that one [critical] sentence.
What about the possibility of [prisoner exchange] deals? Israel has had a history, which is inexplicable to anyone who isn’t in Israel. We’ve made these outrageously lopsided deals over the years, because of this determination to do whatever can be done [to get our captives back]. Do you have a joint position on this? Do you have an individual position on what should be done?
‘People say, “Oh, you have your faith.” Yeah, I have my faith, but I’m a mother’
You might be surprised: The topic never came up between us. As parents, we spend hours and hours together. We were in Geneva together, the mothers. This never came up. This is a very complicated issue that I have dealt with before I became a mother [in this situation.] Even with my students, there are Torah aspects to it; it’s something we all talk about as Israelis. Once I’m in this place, which I did not ask for, I don’t go there as far as my energy and my reservoirs of just handling the situation. I’m not going there publicly, because I don’t want to be in the middle of this dispute. And parents shouldn’t be a part of it.
That’s a very self-effacing position to take. On any kind of logical level, one sees these deals are just dreadful, but if it God forbid happened to me, I would be screaming from the rooftops. And you’re saying, “no, actually you have to not listen to me.”
I might find myself one day screaming from a rooftop, yeah. But I’m telling you now, when you see the lady screaming from the rooftop, don’t listen to her. Do the right thing. Now the right thing might be endangering a thousand soldiers, to break in, or might be giving [up] a thousand captured terrorists. I’m not making the statement [of what would be the right thing to do]. I’m just saying, the lady screaming from the rooftop should not be the one making the decisions.
When you were at the Western Wall, I was very struck when you told those girls who were praying for you that even if something terrible happens, “you stay strong and you stay united.” Where did that come from?
It is true that the 3 families are believing people. Faith has a very strong part in our lives. But I think that within this experience, we’re first and foremost parents. We miss our boys terribly. We’re afraid, we’re anxious. That’s where we are coming from. People say, “Oh, you have your faith.” Yeah, I have my faith, but I’m a mother.
On the other hand, we repeatedly requested people to pray, and people from different faiths, and people that are secular. They each have their own way of sending positive energy, whatever it takes, and prayer means a lot to me. I just want it clear and I kind of repeated myself a few times: Prayer is very powerful but it’s not a guarantee for anything. I didn’t know they were taking pictures then [at the Western Wall] but I think the words they caught me saying were, “God doesn’t work for us.” Just because I’m praying with all my heart. It might help. I believe it could help, especially when thousands and millions are praying. They are. But nobody owes me anything. And if tomorrow, God forbid, I’ll hear the worst news, I don’t want my children to feel that where did all my prayers go?
It was a group of children I don’t know and I feel a responsibility. God forbid, it shouldn’t be a crisis for them.
Tell us a little bit about Naftali. What he likes, what he loves doing. Give us a sense of him.
The thing is these are not symbols on signs. These are kids. I’ll talk about Naftali, though by now I’ve learned a lot about Gil-ad and Eyal too because I spend a lot of time with their mothers, and we keep on talking about them. But Naftali is 16, he’s in high school, he’s a very good student. He’s a bit cynical, like a cynical sense of humor. He’s an excellent basketball player, and he’s very musical, Since last summer he taught himself to play the guitar and he does it very well. He got himself an MP3 player full of different styles of music. People usually go in one direction and he chose classical and jazz and rock and hassidic and Israeli, just so he can expose himself to all kinds of music.
He’s really a fun kid. He was in the middle of his bagruyot, his matriculation exams. His friends were just in our house and they were saying, “It’s such a shame he didn’t make it to this exam,” because the grade goes half from the school [for work during the year] and half from the Education Ministry [for the exam]. The grade he got from the school was a perfect 100. So what a shame. Whatever. He’ll make it.
Thank you so much for speaking to us. And please God, the three of them should be home safely soon.
Thank you so much.
And with that, we were done. And in an instant, Rachelle Fraenkel was out of her chair and gone, back to her home nearby, and to her family.