Yigal Sarusi, father of hostage Almog, says prayer, urges unity

Praying for hostages and soldiers, mass recitation of Shema held at Western Wall

Thousands worldwide join live Fast of Esther broadcast, together with hundreds at the Wall, to pray for hostages’ return; relatives, Gaza-envelope residents, Sara Netanyahu attend

Jews attend a prayer for the return of the hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 21, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Jews attend a prayer for the return of the hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 21, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Thousands of people from around the world joined in with worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in prayers for the soldiers and hostages in what organizers hoped would be the largest recitation of the Shema prayer in the history of the Jewish people.

Before the recitation of the Shema prayer at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch led family members of hostages in reading from Psalms.

The hostages have been held in Gaza since October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking 253 captive.

Yigal Sarusi, father of hostage Almog Sarusi, recited the prayer for the hostages, followed by former MK and Kibbutz Be’eri resident Haim Jelin, who read from Psalms.

The sound of young boys’ voices and hundreds of people echoed Rabinovitch and Jelin, reciting the familiar words of “Song of the Ascents.”

Sarusi asked everyone to clear their minds so they could hear the Shema prayer—“Hear O Israel”—that would be recited together.

“Let us think together about the hostages, about our soldiers and the unity of the State of Israel, to open the gates of heaven,” he said.

Rabinovitch told everyone to cover their eyes as he recited the prayer.

Dozens of twisted shofar horns were blown in unison as the hostage family members kept their eyes closed and their heads bowed in prayer.

Rabinovitch continued with the rest of the Shema, adding blessings and prayers that are usually recited only on the High Holidays.

There were no immediate numbers on how many people joined in worldwide, but a live stream on YouTube had more than 50,000 views.

Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israeli actor Aviv Alush were spotted among the hundreds in attendance at the Western Wall.

Sara Netanyahu attends a prayer for the return of the hostages held in Gaza, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, March 21, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The event, organized by the Aish HaTorah organization, was broadcast live from the Western Wall during the Jewish Fast of Esther, which commemorates the fast undertaken by the Jews of Shushan in the Book of Esther as a prayer for salvation from the royal vizier Haman who wanted to annihilate them.

“The Fast of Esther is a day when fates can change,” said Gina Zohar, whose nephew Omer Neutra is being held hostage, to Israel’s Kan public broadcaster. “We feel that everyone is gathering together with us with the important goal of returning the children home with God’s help, on this day, in this apt place, at our Kotel.”

Kobi Ben Ami, whose son Ohad is in captivity in Gaza, told Kan news: “I am not a religious man. But anyone who says ‘shema yisrael’ causes goosebumps and shaking, a certain kind of transformation. There’s no doubt that it is a very powerful prayer, particularly when all the people of Israel come here… with no connection to politics.”

Jews attend a prayer for the return of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 21, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“Today I feel that there is a big change,” said Varda Ben Baruch, whose grandson Idan Alexander is being held hostage. “There’s something in the air. I feel that there will be a big change starting now and continuing forward. The prayer ‘shema yisrael’ — every Jew reads the ‘Shema.’ It’s a universal thing; it’s not just us here at the Kotel. It’s everywhere in the world.”

The prayer ceremony came as Israel is holding indirect talks with Hamas in Qatar aimed at securing another hostage release and a truce.

It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that.

Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 33 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown. Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

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