Ofir Shaer gives in to the pain, letting it wash over him. He is like a reed that bends to the wind, rather than a mighty tree that refuses to yield.
“People who try to comfort us tell us to be strong. But you can’t be strong in the face of something like this,” Shaer told The Times of Israel over coffee in Modiin late last week, almost a year after the kidnapping and murder of his 16-year-old son Gil-ad by Palestinian terrorists.
“We are in the pain. The pain is in us. We are feeling it and we are not pushing it away,” the father said about how he and his family are coping with their loss.
On the evening of June 12, 2014, Gil-ad was hitchhiking home for the weekend from his school, the Mekor Haim yeshiva in the Etzion bloc in the West Bank south of Jerusalem. He had been waiting at a bus stop/hitchhiking post outside the Alon Shvut settlement together with schoolmate Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, who studied at the Shavei Hevron yeshiva in Hebron. They were picked up by a car that bore Israeli license plates but turned out to be driven by suspected Palestinian terrorists, who quickly shot the boys and dumped their bodies in a field near Hebron.
Although investigators had evidence that the boys had likely been killed (a recorded call to a police hotline by Gil-ad whispering that he had been kidnapped on which shots and cries were subsequently heard, and a burned car with Israeli plates and bloodstained seats), Israeli authorities officially declared them abducted. The search for the boys continued 18 days, with Israelis and Jewish communities around the world demonstrating solidarity with the boys’ families and holding out hope that they would be found alive.
The boys’ dead bodies were found on June 30, and they were buried on July 1, following a joint funeral attended by tens of thousands of mourners. The two terrorist suspects who abducted the boys, Marwan Kawasmeh and Amar Abu-Isa, were killed in a shootout with IDF forces on September 23. On December 31, Hamas member Hussam Qawasmeh was convicted of masterminding the abduction and murders. He was sentenced to three life terms in prison for the murders and ordered by the court to pay $63,000 in compensation to the victims’ families.
“My wife Bat-Galim says, ‘You can’t be strong in the face of death,’” said Shaer, a sole practitioner real estate and taxation attorney. “She’s right. You have to be there to feel the pain. We are not supermen and women.”
Although the pain is with him and his family members all the time, he said, he doesn’t want the people who reach out to try and help them to connect only with their pain.
“We’ve got to translate the pain into something positive for the future. That’s the way that our coping will have meaning,” he said.
To that end, the Shaers, Fraenkels and Yifrachs have established the Memorial Foundation for the Three Boys to promote unity within the Jewish world, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. The foundation’s first major activity is the awarding of the Jerusalem Unity Prize to individuals and organizations doing outstanding work in promoting Jewish unity and connecting Israel with Diaspora Jewish communities.
The first annual prizes will be awarded at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 3. The date is the first anniversary of the boys deaths (according to the Hebrew calendar) and has been designated a Unity Day on which Jewish unity-fostering communal and educational programs will take place throughout the country, and also globally.
“There was an outpouring of solidarity when the boys were missing. We shouldn’t take this unity that we see in times of crisis for granted,” said Shaer.
“What we need to do now is get a process going so that we can see this unity also in regular times. We need to learn a language of communication, respect and tolerance.”
Shaer acknowledged that the past year, with the revenge killing of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 50-day military conflict with Hamas in Gaza and divisive national elections, brought out many “bad things” in Israeli society. He said that he would like to return to the feeling of togetherness the nation had briefly and intensely last summer.
“That feeling should be like a lighthouse whose beacon we can always look to so we stay on course,” he said.
Shaer has been especially moved by how Diaspora Jews, especially young ones, have connected with Israel because of his son and the other two boys. “Kids in the states have posters of Gil-ad, Naftali and Eyal on their bedroom walls next to ones of their sports heroes like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. They haven’t taken them down since last summer,” he said.
‘We have five wonderful daughters who are living, and who want to live happily. We need to go forward for them’
Shaer, who lies in the West Bank settlement of Talmon, was amazed by the huge amount of support shown while the boys were missing and later the influx of condolence letters, emails and phone calls that came in from outside Israel.
“Diaspora communities flew representatives to Israel specially to comfort us during our mourning period,” he said.
As someone who had never had a connection to Jewish life outside Israel, Shaer now realizes the importance of strengthening Israel-Diaspora ties. Having been invited this past year several times to speak at American Jewish community events, including at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in March, Shaer has come to learn more about Jewish life in North America.
“Average Israelis think Diaspora Jews should be thankful for Israel, but we quickly felt the embrace of the Diaspora last summer,” he said. “I’m now trying to get Israelis to understand how important the Diaspora is. This connection can only be good for all of us.”
As the first anniversary of his son’s death approaches, Shaer reflected on what it has been like to mourn in the spotlight.
“It’s been complicated to be in the public eye. It’s been a challenge to find a balance between the public and the private,” he said.
He has felt a sense of responsibility to give back to those who have supported him and his family and to take the unity agenda forward. At the same time, he has an equally urgent responsibility to take care of his family, especially his five daughters, aged 5 to 19, as they grieve.
“We and the other two families are each trying to carry on with our private lives, to try to return to a pre-murder normalcy. But at the same time, the connection among us is very intense,” he said.
The families use a WhatsApp social media group they have created (it’s called GAON – an acronym of the boys’ first initials in Hebrew) to keep in touch and coordinate plans. According to Shaer, some of the boys’ siblings have become close with one another.
Shaer does not have control over the pain he feels from having lost his son Gil-ad. However, there is one thing about which he is absolutely resolute: “We have five wonderful daughters who are living, and who want to live happily. We need to go forward for them,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Following the publication of this article, Ofir Shaer contacted The Times of Israel to clarify that Israeli security forces had reason to believe that one or more of the boys could have still been alive, and therefore they continued to search for them as kidnapping hostages. He also asked that it be mentioned that he believes that the national unity shown while the boys were missing continued throughout last summer during Operation Protective Edge.