The first anniversary of the deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach, the Israeli teenagers kidnapped and killed by Palestinian terrorists last summer, is being marked on Wednesday with a Unity Day.
A million individuals throughout Israel and in Jewish communities in 20 different countries are expected to participate in unity-themed gatherings and educational programs. A conference on issues that emerged from the events of the summer of 2014 will take place in Jerusalem, and the first annual Jerusalem Unity Prize will be awarded to individuals and organizations identified as leaders in promoting Jewish unity in Israel or in strengthening Israel-Diaspora ties.
A year ago, Jews in Israel and around the world came together in solidarity as they hoped and prayed that Fraenkel, Shaer and Yifrach would be found alive. In the end, the boys — murdered almost immediately by their abductors — did not come home.
The sense of unity, however, did not end. The bereaved families were comforted by people from all walks of life, from different religious outlooks, and from all over the political spectrum.
That togetherness, the putting aside of differences, did not go unnoticed by the teens’ parents. They decided that Jewish unity would be their sons’ legacy, and that they would dedicate themselves to raising awareness of the importance of unity every day, and not only during times of crisis and conflict with the nation’s enemies.
The recipients of the Jerusalem Unity Prize reflect this concept in the work that they do to bring together Jews of all backgrounds and persuasions to engage in dialogue and shared activities.
“It’s easy to unite when something dramatic happens, such as when the boys were kidnapped, or when there are wars and crises. As a famous rabbi once told me, ‘We know how to die together. It’s time we learned how to live together,’” said Raya Ofner, co-founder of Nifgashim BeShvil Israel (Meeting for Israel), an annual 2-month-long hike along the Israel National Trail.
What started out 13 years ago as a hike of a small group of friends and family members in memory of Ofner’s son Avi, a first sergeant who was killed along with 72 other soldiers in a 1997 IDF helicopter disaster, has grown into an annual event attracting around 8,000 participants each year.
Ofner and her husband, Yossi, are being recognized for their program’s success in getting all different kinds of Israelis to dialogue candidly and respectfully with one another. The conversations take place casually among the hikers, and also more formally during text-based discussion workshops that the Nifgashim BeShvil Israel organizers lead each day along the trail.
“There are intense interactions between people who wouldn’t meet otherwise,” said Ofner. “There is something about going out into nature. It does good for the soul and opens people up to others.”
Brigadier General (Ret.) Ram Shmueli, another Jerusalem Unity Prize recipient, has also focused his efforts on bringing diverse Israelis together for dialogue. Shmueli is the founder of Meetchabrim, a network of hundreds of social and educational organizations and groups in the business and public sectors. Meetchabrim organizes roundtable discussions for Israel’s leaders and for average citizens on topics of interest to them (including 45 different events to take place on Wednesday for Unity Day). To date, more than 200,000 people have participated in one or more of Meetchabrim’s roundtable discussions.
For Shmueli, the subjects discussed do not matter as much as the way they are discussed. “We are developing a language for how to speak with one another,” he said of a civil discourse that does not come naturally to many Israelis.
“The segmentation in Israeli society is very dangerous. We don’t know each other and we don’t know how to interact. As someone who is retired from a senior position in the Air Force, I believe that this is an urgent, national security issue,” Shmueli said.
The Jerusalem Unity Prize is a joint initiative of a foundation set up by the families in memory of the three teens along with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Gesher, an organization working to bridge gaps between different segments of Israeli society. It will be awarded at a ceremony Wednesday evening at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
The prize, up to NIS 100,000 in each of three categories (Israeli individual, Israeli organization, and Israel-Diaspora initiative), was donated by Robert and Amy Book, David and Sarena Koschitzky, Ira and Ingeborg Rennert, Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein, Ronnen Harary, and UJA Federation of New York. The prize committee was chaired by Barkat and included former UK chief rabbi Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Gesher Foundation founder Rabbi Danny Tropper, Migdal Ha’emek chief rabbi Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman, former deputy speaker of the Knesset and Shenkar College president Dr. Yuli Tamir, journalist Orly Vilnai and musician Kobi Oz.
The Unity Prize recipient in the Israel-Diaspora ties category is the Chabad House in Bangkok, Thailand, led for the past 20 years by Rabbi Nehemya Wilhelm. The house, with its Shabbat meal service, synagogue, subsidized kosher restaurant and emergency assistance for backpackers, is a meeting point for tens of thousands of Jews who travel to Thailand each year.
“We are very excited to be awarded this prize. We consider a large part of our mission to be bringing of people together and connecting Jews with one another,” Wilhelm wrote in an email to The Times of Israel.
Rabbi Hacham David Menachem shares the prize in the individual Israeli category with Shmueli. A liturgical piyyutim singer and composer, Menachen is being recognized for using music to break down barriers between people, including Israelis and Palestinians.
According to J.J. Sussman, managing director of the international activities of Unity Day, some 200 nominations for the prize were submitted. Ofir Shaer, father of Gil-ad Shaer, told The Times of Israel that all three families were involved in the process of selecting the recipients from start to finish.
“Working on the prize has allowed us to draw strength from the nation over the course of this incredibly painful year,” said Shaer.