On the penultimate day of the two-and-a-half-week search for missing teenage boys Gil-ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach in the summer of 2014, tens of thousands of people converged on Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in a show of support for their families.
After the boys’ bodies were found the next day, over 10,000 mourners gathered to say the Kaddish prayer at a funeral ceremony, and a Crown Heights, Brooklyn, family named their newborn son for the teens, who were murdered by Hamas terrorists.
In spite of the enormity of the tragedy, the show of unity by Jews in Israel and around the world inspired the teens’ families to use the memory of their sons as a catalyst for perpetuating that sense of Jewish togetherness.
Now, as part of its latest initiative, the SonShine Foundation, founded by Ofir and Bat-Galim Shaer in honor of their son Gil-ad, will award $10,000 to a winning idea that would unite Diaspora and Israeli Jews.
The contest invites the public to vote for the top proposal between June 16 and June 20, with a raffle that will see one voter win a pair of El Al plane tickets.
In addition to the public vote, celebrity judges Ayelet Shaked, Natan Sharansky, and SpaceIL co-founder Kfir Damari will also nominate a winner. The final victor will be chosen based on a weighted score between the two votes.
The award ceremony takes place Sunday, June 23, at the American Jewish Committee building in Jerusalem.
“Five years ago when we lost our son, we felt a warm embrace from all of the Jews around the world and we realized that when we speak about Am Yisrael [the Jewish people], it’s not just Am Yisrael that lives here in Israel, it’s also the part that lives in the Diaspora,” Bat-Galim Shaer told The Times of Israel.
“When we speak about Am Yisrael and we understand that it’s about 14 million Jews around the world – it’s a force. It’s meaningful. So we have to be together,” she said. “It’s in the interest of both sides – they need us, and we need them.”
Shaer, a mother of six and educator for the last 20 years, said that the SonShine Foundation, which she chairs, has been working on the contest for roughly a year. It has 50 organizations on board for the project and others working on the relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, she said.
“Our foundation does work on two levels,” she said. “One is that we try to foster connections here in Israel, within Israeli society, and the other is between Israel and the Diaspora. Our main goal is to grow more optimism within the Jewish world. We realized that if we can maintain this positive spirit during the bad times, we absolutely must try to be this positive and optimistic during the good times.”
In the coming days Shaer also expects to see the release of the English translation of her book, “Expecting My Child,” on Amazon. The memoir chronicles Shaer’s thoughts and feelings during the 18 days her son was missing, and follows as she rebuilds her life in the wake of the devastation.
She said that though the book deals with tragedy, its message is ultimately optimistic.
“It’s my story, but I also think it’s the Jewish nation’s story. Everyone can feel connected because everyone deals with something,” she said. “But I also think that everyone feels part of a bigger nation. And when you read the book, it’s a very optimistic, very positive book. It’s a very hard story, but I think you can get a lot of strength from it, and I hope that people will read it and feel connected through it.”
Over 700 projects from 22 countries were whittled down over multiple phases since March to yield the final three projects that are currently being voted on.
The finalists include innovative projects such as an initiative to solidify Jewish identity via a new symbolic status of non-Israeli Diaspora Jew, a social media app that would connect users around the world based on their Jewish birthdays, and a global “Jewish trail” for travelers that would match lodgers with hosts along a variety of contemporary and historical Jewish sites.
Twenty-eight-year-old Israeli architecture student Baruch Jacoby said that he had already been thinking of the idea for the Jewish trail as part of his final project at Ariel University even before the contest was announced. He submitted the project to the contest together with Ruth Yehoshua.
“The more I travel, the more I see different things and broaden my horizons, so I try to travel as much as I can as a student — and yeah, I pretty much travel anywhere I can,” Jacoby told The Times of Israel, adding that his travels include a recent trip to the French Riviera and an upcoming visit to Morocco.
“Flying around the world is so common these days, and in general it’s cheaper and easier to travel. There are also all kinds of capsule hotels and stuff,” he said. “I was inspired by the so-called Angels of the Trail who live along the Israel National Trail and put people up for free. Some have even converted rooms in their homes for this purpose and provide free lodging on a daily basis. In almost every city in the world there is a Jewish community, or at least there is something Jewish about it.”
Israeli-born and Canadian-raised Oriyah Barzilay said that she came up with the birthday app, called “A Double Mazel Tov,” together with David Adler during a staff meeting at the Toronto health tech company where she worked until recently.
“We were looking for the simplicity of it,” she said. “It’s something that everybody can obviously participate in by putting in their Hebrew birthday. By doing so it gives them a little more knowledge about the Jewish calendar, and at the same time connects them to somebody across the world who has the same birthday as them.”
As a first step, users would exchange phone numbers and enjoy a happy birthday call – but there are many options in the works that could help people maintain a connection.
“We hope that this project comes to fruition because just by connecting people and letting them have a conversation, it will show a lot of Jews that they’re more similar than they are different,” said Barzilay. “We know that throughout history we’ve always been a lot stronger when we’re united, so hopefully this will bring some more unity to the Jewish people.”