'What we got was a very meaningful and powerful gift'

Murdered teen Gil-ad Shaer’s diary ‘miraculously’ returned to grieving parents

Bereaved mother Bat-Galim Shaer pens memoir, includes excerpts from son’s secret writings that survived Palestinian terrorist kidnappers’ burned car

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Detail from a page of Gil-ad Shaer's recovered diary. (Courtesy)
Detail from a page of Gil-ad Shaer's recovered diary. (Courtesy)

Ten months after Ofir and Bat-Galim Shaer buried their 16-year-old son Gil-ad, one of the three Jewish Israeli teenagers kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in the West Bank in June 2014, the police called to say they wanted to visit the Shaer home. Some additional personal effects found in the car used and burned by the terrorists, Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu Aysha, had surfaced and needed to be identified.

Among the items were some that the Shaers recognized, like their son’s tallit (prayer shawl) and glasses. There was also something they were seeing for the first time and had not known existed: A diary written in Gil-ad’s hand.

Almost a year after his parents lost him, it was as if Gil-ad had returned to share his private thoughts on the last half-year of his life, inscribed on the pages of a spiral notebook that had miraculously survived fire and water damage.

The three kidnapped and murdered teens, from left to right: Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach (photo credit: Courtesy)

And now Gil-ad’s words are shared with the world, as portions of the diary are published inside a new (Hebrew-language) memoir by Bat-Galim Shaer, “What A Day May Bring,” about coping with her grief. The diary reveals an earnest and self-aware young man connected to God and his community who aspired to live up to his name, which in Hebrew means “eternal happiness.”

A page from Gil-ad Shaer’s recovered diary. (Courtesy)

Both Israeli and Palestinian police worked at the scene of the burned car, discovered near Hebron on June 13, 2014, at the beginning of the 18-day search for Gil-ad, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach, known as Operation Brother’s Keeper. The diary’s scattered and crumbling pages were gathered by Palestinian officers and stored in Hebron. It was only months later that they were rediscovered and transferred to Israel police headquarters in Jerusalem.

“It was a miracle that these were found. They could have easily gone missing forever. It was truly a big miracle,” Bat-Galim Shaer told The Times of Israel in a recent interview at a café in the central Israeli city of Modiin, near the Shaer’s home in the Talmon settlement.

Bat-Galim worked for several weeks with Israel Police forensic expert Chief Superintendent Sharon Brown to restore and decipher as much as possible from the diary’s pages. Brown had previously worked on pages of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon’s diary recovered from the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003.

As seen in the Channel 2 news report below (Hebrew), Brown used special light filters and digital technologies to restore a significant portion of what Gil-ad had written. She and Bat-Galim worked with care on the deciphering from the fragile originals.

“Because a lot of the words were blurred or missing, we weren’t able to fill in everything. There were parts we couldn’t recover, but we got a lot of it. What we got was a very meaningful and powerful gift,” Bat-Galim said.

Ofir Shaer said he appreciated his wife’s emotional strength in doing this painstakingly work during their first year of mourning.

“I admire her for being able to go line by line and hear our son speaking to her from these pages. It wasn’t easy,” he said.

His wife said she found the process therapeutic. “It helped me work through the intense feeling of loss in those initial months and years. I think in the end it helped me. It helped me connect to Gil-ad,” she said.

Bat-Galim Shaer with her son Gil-ad Shaer, who was kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists in June, 2014. (Courtesy)

Writing her memoir was also therapeutic for Bat-Galim. Although she had never written a diary or journal before, she started jotting down stream-of-consciousness notes in a notebook within the first month after Gil-ad’s death.

Ofir recalled his wife pulling her notebook out of her purse in the car on family trips, and her writing in it in bed even in the wee hours of the morning.

“I may not have been a diarist, but I always liked to write for family events or for things related to my work as a teacher. Here it was clear to me that I needed the writing as an emotional outlet. I felt compelled to do it,” Bat-Galim said.

Like his wife, Ofir sought a creative outlet for his grief and ended up immersing himself in a videotherapy program offered by the Ma’aleh Film School.

“When a trauma happens, I think something opens in you that says, ‘Let’s try, let’s be open to new experiences and give them a chance.’ Opening your heart and mind helps you cope and gets you out of sitting inside your pain,” he said.

Within a few months, Bat-Galim realized she had a potential book and turned to a publisher and editors for help in shaping it into a publishable memoir over the ensuing couple of years.

“What A Day May Bring” (the title is taken from Proverbs 27:1) has struck a chord with Israeli readers. It was was released on September 1 and is already number two on the non-fiction bestseller list at Tzomet Sfarim, Israel’s second largest bookseller. (It is not yet available in English.)

Ofir Shaer (left) with his son Gil-ad Shaer, who was kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists in June 2014. (Courtesy)

While the memoir is an unmistakable intimate account of a God-fearing and religiously observant woman, its core messages about resilience in the face of adversity, the basic goodness of people, and the importance of social and national solidarity are universally resonant.

It’s been a little over three years since the Shaers, who also have five daughters, suddenly went from being anonymous to recognizable almost everywhere they go in Israel. They have reluctantly remained in the public eye by choice, aware that privacy is the price they pay for their ongoing commitment to memorializing Gil-ad through public speaking and Jewish unity initiatives, including Unity Day and the Jerusalem Unity Prize.

The Shaers are working on some new projects aimed at strengthening relations between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. Before the Jewish world banded together to “Bring Back Our Boys” in June 2014, Ofir and Bat-Galim were unconnected with Jewish communities abroad, and unaware of how passionately many Diaspora Jews feel about their ties with Israel. The sense of global Jewish brotherhood exhibited during the18 days the boys were missing inspired the Shaers to work to strengthen ties, especially among the younger generations in North America and Israel.

Bat-Galim Shaer’s new memoir, ‘What A Day May Bring’ (Courtesy)

When asked about the current deep rift between North American Jews and Israel over prayer at the Kotel and Jewish pluralism issues in Israel in general, Ofir said he and Bat-Galim weren’t in a position to deal with politics.

“We are not in a role that goes into the depths of the issue. We are coming from a very real and heartfelt place where we want to focus on dialogue and conversation. If we [Israelis and American Jews] will be in conversation, then we can get into the depth of things,” Ofir said.

Bat-Galim hopes readers will gain insights from her book, the main one being that we shouldn’t wait until a crisis to pull together. She hopes Israelis and Jews everywhere will show the best of themselves also in good times.

“During those 18 days, society was better, more pleasant and more tolerant. People showed their goodness. It should be our personal and societal mission to be united in our pluralism, good to one another while respecting our differences. The conversation has to be different, more respectful,” Bat-Galim said.

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