Thousands of Israelis gathered at the Western Wall plaza on Sunday to join in supplication for the safe release of three yeshiva students who were kidnapped in the West Bank. Police estimated that over 30,000 people, among them family members of the abducted teens, attended the prayer session.
Eyal Yifrach, 19, from Elad near Petah Tikva, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, from the settlement of Talmon, and Naftali Frenkel, 16, a dual Israeli-American citizen from Nof Ayalon near Modiin, were abducted while hitchhiking south of Jerusalem Thursday night, sparking a wide-ranging manhunt in the West Bank.
Yifrach’s brother, Asaf, led the crowd at the Western Wall with brokenhearted prayer, sobbing as he recited verse after verse from the Book of Psalms.
The session was attended by both Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, as well as IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz. Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and Shas MK Eli Yishai also took part.
“We are proving to our enemies that the people of Israel live on, and we will never be broken,” Lau said.
“The entire nation came to the Western Wall tonight, as one person with one heart, united in prayer for the safety of the hostages; may they soon return to their families and their nation,” he added.
After the prayer session, minor fights broke out near the Western Wall between Jews and Arabs.
Earlier Sunday, Lau urged Pope Francis, who recently traveled to Israel, to extend his public influence and help ensure the teenagers’ safe release.
Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square also saw a prayer gathering Sunday evening, organized by the Tel Aviv Religious Council and the Bnei Akiva youth movement. Hundreds attended.
“At this difficult hour we must unite and strengthen the families, and hope that through our prayers along with other prayers that take place across the country, we will open the gates of heaven and our boys shall return home,” a pamphlet distributed by the organizers read.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and the city’s chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, took part in the gathering, along with Yehuda Wachsman, the father of IDF soldier Nachshon Wachsman, who was kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians in 1994, and Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad Shalit, who was held by Hamas in Gaza for years until he was released in 2011.
Prayers and special study sessions were also held at the Mekor Haim high school yeshiva in Kfar Etzion, where two of the teens studied. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, the founder of the yeshiva, called on Jews to recite psalms and pray for the students’ safe return.
“In a time and place that had seemed to us quiet and serene, we have been thrown into an event that we can do nothing to resolve,” he said.
Steinsaltz expressed gratitude to the IDF for its efforts to return the teens to their families, and frustration that he and other concerned Israelis are not able to assist.
“All we have left now is to turn to our Father in Heaven and plead,” Steinsaltz said. “What we can do, and this has been the Jewish way from time immemorial, is to add more holiness and learn more Torah,” he added.
Earlier Sunday, the parents of the kidnapped teenagers expressed optimism that their sons would return home safely.
“We are optimistic, with God’s help, He will see the combined effort of the prayers and solidarity, and we will embrace Naftali, Eyal, and Gil-ad here,” Racheli Frenkel, mother to Naftali Frenkel, said outside her Nof Ayalon home Sunday afternoon.
“Naftali, Mom and Dad and your siblings love you to no end. Know that Israel is turning the world upside down to bring you home,” she said.
The Frenkels also thanked IDF soldiers, the Shin Bet security service and others for keeping them updated and for their persistent efforts to locate their son, and asked that the public continue to pray on behalf of the captives.
Bat-Galim Shaar, Gil-ad’s mother, thanked the citizens of Israel for offering their prayers, and said felt blessed to be supported by so many people.
“We are going through a difficult time these days. I want to embrace with the people of Israel, an embrace of gratitude, a hug of thanks, an embrace of prayer. We feel embrace hug at all times. This gives us a lot of strength. And that is what’s keeps us going in harsh days like these,” she said.
“We are sending all these positive energy to our Gil-Ad. Gil-Ad is strong, and I’m sure Naftali and Eyal are strong as well. I want to ask the people of Israel, Keep praying together! Continue to empower our children. With the help of God, with this unity, we will succeed.”
JTA contributed to this report.