This past Friday, as some 2,300 young Tel Avivians packed into a hangar at the Tel Aviv Port to set a Guinness World Record for the largest communal Shabbat dinner in history, the festive, celebratory mood was tempered by something very dark indeed.
Just a few hours before the 800 bottles of wine were popped open and the thousands of plates of chicken, beef and challah were served, a much humbler and more troubling number was on the lips of Israelis across the country: Three.
Social media outlets had been buzzing about the story all day long, but at last the media was able to confirm the terrible news: Three young men, two of them only 16 years old, had been kidnapped in the West Bank on their way home from school Thursday night and had not been heard from since.
For Jay Shultz, the founder of White City Shabbat, the nonprofit that organized the record-busting event, there was no question that the kidnapping would have to be addressed.
There were several boldfaced names on hand at the dinner, which at 11 p.m. was officially declared the record-holder, and nearly all of them, including Professor Alan Dershowitz, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, mentioned the three missing boys in their remarks that evening.
“All of them said we should have the boys in our mind, and our mega event of unity should stand for something – that they get home safe,” says Schultz. “It was really beautiful. It was ad hoc and we didn’t plan it, but without question, all of us at White City Shabbat ensured that [thoughts and prayers for the kidnapped] were part of our event in a meaningful way.”
Israel is very familiar with demonstrations of mass unity and solidarity. In times of crisis, this highly fractured nation has an uncanny ability to look beyond its divided neighborhoods, its tensions and its innumerable segmentations of race and origin, and actually unite as one people.
Perhaps that’s why, over the weekend, so many mothers and fathers described 16-year-old Naftali Frenkel, 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah and 16-year-old Gil-ad Shaar as their own. The hashtag #bringbackourboys began to trend on social media. On Sunday evening, under the guidance of Israel’s chief rabbis, 25,000 worshippers – religious and secular alike – packed into the Western Wall plaza for a united prayer service in hopes of their safe return.
“All I can think about are the three boys, in an unknown location. All I can think about are their parents, the strength of their mothers, the terror they must feel,” wrote Shev Zacks, a Detroit native who made aliyah in 2009, in a blog post for The Times of Israel. Zacks, who is in the final stages of planning her wedding, summed up in her blog what so many Israelis are feeling at this moment – we must be sad, yes, but we must also be strong.
“We cannot stop our lives in the face of terror. I am planning a Jewish wedding, I am building a Jewish home,” she wrote. “Every other minute, even as I write this, I’m checking the news to see if updates have been posted. But I keep reminding myself – we must go on. Life must go on.”
Zacks’s is far from the only celebration that has been affected by the story. One mother, who asked to be named only as R., celebrated her daughter’s bat mitzvah on Sunday night and started off the celebrations not with toasts or cheers, but with a somber speech about how the missing boys were on everyone’s mind. They later moved on to dinner and dancing, but added in a Psalms reading in their honor, as well.
“We felt kind of guilty that we’re having this big party and we’re all happy and having fun while there are three boys out there and no one knows where they are, and their parents are suffering,” says R. “There wasn’t a cloud over the simcha, but there was a cloud in our minds… we couldn’t go without mentioning it.”
Benji Lovitt, another Times of Israel blogger and a beloved local comedian, expressed a similar sentiment on Monday morning. On Sunday evening, as that massive prayer service at the Western Wall was getting underway, Lovitt was leading an entirely different kind of event – performing a comedy gig at Jerusalem’s Off the Wall Comedy Basement.
“I didn’t want to be there,” he admits. “I wasn’t in the mood – nobody was in the mood.”
Lovitt shared his experience in a blog post, and later told The Times of Israel that the only way he was able to get the laughs going was to first address the elephant in the room.
So as he stood on stage in Jerusalem, a short drive from the hitchhiking post in Gush Etzion where Yifrach, Frenkel and Shaar were snatched on Thursday night, he began on a surprisingly serious note, telling the audience that he knew everyone’s thoughts were focused on the missing boys and he hoped they could still enjoy the show regardless.
“That’s the thing about this country,” says Lovitt. “We have to move on. We don’t forget but we continue to live our lives. And then you get that first laugh as a comedian, and you’re fine.”
As much as Israelis’ happy events are including a somber note of solidarity, Shultz says, he also hopes they may somehow be able to help.
“I believe in Shabbat, both physically and spiritually,” he says. “There’s value in the unity of the Jewish people. It does bring extra light into the universe. And I don’t understand the world of spiritual mechanics, but if anything we did at our dinner could be helpful or meaningful, I’m glad we did the little we could to contribute.”