WASHINGTON — Manny Halberstam got the call after Shabbat ended late Saturday night. Although he had heard before the Sabbath about three young Israelis who had been kidnapped while hitchhiking near Alon Shvut in the West Bank’s Etzion Bloc of settlements, he had gone through the day without knowing that one of them was Naftali Fraenkel, a cousin he had gotten to know during his year of study in Israel.
Fraenkel is Halberstam’s second cousin – their grandmothers are sisters – and the family in Israel and in the US keep in contact. When Halberstam, 25, took a year off between his undergraduate education and law school to study in yeshiva, he joined his Israeli family – including then-13-year-old Fraenkel, at a number of family events where he got to know the teenager more closely.
Living temporarily in Efrat, Halberstam saw Fraenkel frequently, at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and over the Shabbat table at Fraenkel’s grandmother’s house.
Fraenkel, he says, made an effort to get to know his American cousin, speaking to him in English. “He is very friendly, and genuinely wanted to get to know who I am,” he recounts.
“I had good, quality time with him,” during the Sabbath that the two spent together at Fraenkel’s grandmother’s house. “He left a very positive impression on me.” Halberstam describes Fraenkel, one of seven, as an excellent older brother to whom his younger siblings looked for leadership.
“Life is so rich with potential for a child of such moral character. He is a very good brother and son, and is always filled with joy,” Halberstam recalls. “That’s the kind of person he is. There’s always a smile on his face.”
Fraenkel’s grandparents moved to Israel in the 1950s, and he was raised there. Much of his family lives in the US, and he has dual Israeli-American citizenship.
Halberstam says that Fraenkel’s joy makes it particularly “tough to think about the fact that he is being held captive and to imagine the pain and trauma he’s experiencing.”
Since he heard the news, he has been speaking with his family every day – but it is paradoxically the family in Israel that has strengthened Halberstam from afar.
“The first day I heard the news, I was really down; as I was eating breakfast or casually watching TV, I’d just think about what’s happening to him at that moment, what he’s going through,” Halberstam recounts. “But Naftali’s mother, Racheli, is just so incredibly positive – that the security forces will find him – that I thought to myself that if the boy’s mother is able to be so positive about a situation that is so disturbing, surely I should be able to be more positive and hopeful about it too.”
Moving from shock to action, Halberstam began, together with his friend Aaron Wolff, to search for a plan of action to help his cousin – in fact, his entire Israeli family – from afar. The two decided to hold a vigil Thursday outside the White House in an effort to send a message to the country’s foreign policy leaders.
Halberstam says that the two “hope that we can get enough people to send a strong message to President Obama that what is going on in Israel is not isolated to Israel but touches and concerns us in America.”
“All efforts should be exerted to ensure these children safely reunite with their families,” he says.
“For many of us, Naftali Fraenkel and the other boys are our family, whether by blood, by faith or by culture,” he explains. “It is not just about sending Obama a message but also about sending a message to the families in Israel who are experiencing so much suffering and showing them that communities in America have deep sympathy for what they are going through.”
Over 100 people have committed to attend, and Wolff and Halberstam hope that the number will continue to grow as word spreads.
“As an American who feels a very strong connection with people in Israel, when there is a horrible incident like this kidnapping, it seems like there is a limited number of things that we can do to solve this problem and help return the boys home safely,” says Halberstam.