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Prize memorializing murdered teens promotes unity, not uniformity

Ofir Shaer, father of Gil-ad Shaer, says his son’s actions exemplified new initiative’s focus on bridge-building among all Jews

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

The three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank in June 2014, from left to right: Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. (Courtesy)
The three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank in June 2014, from left to right: Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. (Courtesy)

Much was said and written about the tremendous amount of Jewish unity that expressed itself last summer in the face of the kidnapping and murder of Israeli Jewish teenagers Gil-ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach by Palestinian terrorists. “Bring back our boys” became the rallying cry not only of citizens in Israel, but also of Jews in communities throughout the world in that tragic time.

Now, in an attempt to strengthen and perpetuate that sense of togetherness and mutual support, the families of the three slain boys, together with Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and Gesher, an organization working to bridge gaps between different segments of Israeli society, have launched the Jerusalem Unity Prize. To be awarded on the first anniversary of the deaths of Shaer, Fraenkel and Yifrach, it will recognize individuals, organizations and social initiatives promoting unity among Jews in Israel, and between Israel and the Diaspora.

“We have been witness to many expressions of Jewish unity. What happened with the boys became a prism for this unity. There has been a ripple effect, and we had no idea how far these ripples would go,” Ofir Shaer, Gil-ad Shaer’s father, told The Times of Israel.

“We were especially amazed by the strong connection between the Diaspora and Israel that became apparent,” he said.

According to Anat Schwarz Weil, director of the Jerusalem Unity Prize, the idea for the prize came out of a conversation Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat had with the families when he visited them during the shiva mourning period following the boys’ burials on July 1, 2014.

“It was clear to me that the most honorable way to memorialize the boys was to promote the unity that the families demonstrated and created,” Barkat said in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“The families put the good of the nation ahead of their own children. We hadn’t seen unity like that in decades.”

The award will be presented in three separate categories: Individuals or Organizations; Social Initiatives; and Israel and the Diaspora. The winner(s) of each category will be awarded up to NIS 100,000 ($25,300). The recipients will be chosen by a committee comprised of the mayor, the parents of the three boys, and dignitaries from Israel and the Diaspora, including 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.

“We’ve become aware of many new projects that bring together different sectors of the population and promote dialogue among them, and we want to give them backing,” said Ofir Shaer.

The father of the murdered teen emphasized that unity does not mean uniformity.

‘It’s all about how different people with different outlooks and beliefs can live together side-by-side’

“It’s all about how different people with different outlooks and beliefs can live together side-by-side,” he said. “This unity creates inner resilience to help us deal with the difficulties we face as a people, be they economic or security-wise, as is unfortunately our case.”

According to Weil, submissions related to unity among Jews and non-Jews in Israel are welcome, but the focus will be on Jewish unity.

“We are really open and looking forward to seeing what people come up with. But yes, we are emphasizing the value of ‘kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh’ (all is Israel are responsible for one another),” said Barkat.

Nominations are currently being accepted via the Jerusalem Unity Prize website, and the prizes will be awarded in Jerusalem on June 3, which will be a special “Unity Day” dedicated to programming promoting the various initiatives.

The prize will be given annually for at least the next three years thanks to the generosity of Ira and Ingeborg Rennert, Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein, Robert and Amy Book, David and Sarena Koschitzky and the UJA Federation of New York.

Ophir Shaer with the Torah scroll dedicated to the memory of his late son, Gil-ad, as well as Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel (photo credit: Michal Aviad/Courtesy)
Ofir Shaer with the Torah scroll dedicated to the memory of his late son, Gil-ad, as well as Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel (photo credit: Michal Aviad/Courtesy)

Ofir Shaer is most excited to learn more about what young people are doing to promote Jewish unity. He believes that his late son Gil-ad would have appreciated what the families are trying to achieve with the prize.

“Gil-ad was a counselor in the B’nei Akiva youth movement. He didn’t work with kids in our community [the religious Jewish settlement of Talmon], but instead with another community that is more [religiously] mixed,” the father said.

“He really connected with the kids there. We are still in touch with those families. His impact is still felt,” he said.

“Gil-ad taught those kids Jewish history, love of the Jewish people and values. He showed that it’s not just about talking. It’s about doing.”

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