Saturday, July 5, 2014

Documenting 18 days of impossible emotions, unity and love

...At Gil-ad's funeral, I wanted to tell him: Gil-ad, my dear beloved Gil-ad, we did everything we could. Your parents, your friends, your community, the Israel Defense Forces, that elusive thing called a people, we did everything we could.

Emily Amrousi..
Israel Hayom..
04 July '14..

On Sunday, before the Israeli security forces discovered the bodies of Gil-ad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach, a rally was held at Rabin Square to pray for their safe return. During the rally, suddenly there was quiet. Silence. A thin sound of women singing rose from the crowd. The words they sang were taken from a prayer for the ransoming of captives, which had become a sort of anthem in the weeks leading up to the service: "May the All-present have mercy upon them, and bring them forth from trouble to relief, from darkness to light, and from subjection to redemption."

The host of the rally, television and radio personality Avri Gilad, remained quiet for a long time. The spontaneous singing sounded like violins. It was at that moment that I realized that it didn't matter how this ordeal would end -- the people of Israel had won. That song made its way to the heavens.

The three boys, who were kidnapped on June 12 and murdered shortly after the abduction, were buried on Tuesday, but they had been laid to rest for the 18 days that preceded their funerals. The time that it took to break the news of their death was excruciating, but it was also a blessing. It gave the families time to prepare; it provided a large network of support for them, of thousands of arms hugging them. The layers were peeled back and underneath it became obvious that we are one people, with a single shared fate that put us here, and when one of us is taken from us, something in all of us dies. After too many years of being "citizens of Israel," we were reminded that it is okay to be the "people of Israel," too.

This was the first time, and hopefully the last time, in my life that I was so personally involved in the news. I saw the news from inside, and it rocked me to the core. Throughout my career as a journalist, I encountered many mothers who were in the midst of an emotional quake. I interviewed Aviva Schalit, the mother of Gilad Schalit, three years after her son was kidnapped by Hamas. I spoke with Miriam Peretz, who lost two of her sons in two separate wars. I sat with the mother of Ruth Fogel, who was brutally murdered along with four other members of her family at their home in Itamar. I sat with the only surviving member of the Attias family that was killed in a devastating car crash in Tiberias. I encountered buckets of tears and mountains of sorrow. But this time I was too close to the disaster zone. This time, it was my neighbors, Ophir and Bat-Galim Shaer, members of my community of Talmon, and sweet Gil-ad whom I've known since he was in the fourth grade.

On Monday, an hour after the news emerged that the bodies had been found, I stood outside the family home and could not bring myself to go in. It is near impossible for me to separate Emily the person from Emily the writer; writing is a second nature to me. At that intimate moment, when a family's world was collapsing, I felt that I could not allow myself to be in that house. I was afraid that I would collect pieces of the life around me, out of habit, and write about them in the paper, thus violating their trust. It was only later that I entered. And I won't write about that.

Tears over Shabbat candles

For two and a half weeks I was very close to the parents who, against their will, became symbols. They are impressive people, but not the kind one would imagine being the object of public admiration. Regular people like anyone else. The strength they discovered within themselves, amid the journey to rescue their son, was like something from another world. What I can say, however, is that they are exemplary parents. Here's one example that only a neighbor would know: They affix a page containing a Torah sermon or general knowledge to the boxes of breakfast cereal that their children eat, so that the children have something worthwhile to read while they eat their breakfast. They make sure to make a new page every day.

On Friday morning, three weeks ago, a message came in from the town office: Gil-ad Shaer is missing. Everyone who saw that message immediately knew that something terrible had happened. Gil-ad was the last person who would go missing just like that. He was so responsible, so square, in the good sense of the word. The neighbors began to gather in the family home. Later, defense officials, police officers and members of special forces also came, and stayed with the family for a full two weeks. In their living room, stuck inside a planter, there are three Israeli flags. They have been there since Independence Day. Patriotism and faith in the state, are very apparent here.

Bat-Galim incessantly asked what was going on with Gil-ad and Naftali (at that point, they didn't know that Eyal was also missing). She kept asking if anyone knew anything about where they were. No one could provide answers. Are they alive? She asked. They were quiet. She looked at her watch. "They've had him for 12 hours, what he must be going through." Then, "18 hours have passed, what happened to him in this time?" She couldn't begin to imagine that this counting would continue beyond hours, beyond days, but weeks. And thank God it didn't go further than that.

On Friday afternoon, vicious rumors began emerging on mobile networks, detailing the safe rescue of the two boys in credible, news-like language. The defense officials in the family's yard rejected these rumors as false. Bat-Galim asked that no one read them to her anymore. Then the prime minister called to brief the family on the rescue efforts. Ophir wanted to be the one to answer the phone in the house himself, in case Gil-ad calls. Every ring made everyone jump. On the other end there were invariably curious bystanders, media outlets, or just annoying callers asking which branch of the Shaer family they belonged to.

Bat-Galim received a text message from a colleague concerning some work thing. Probably someone who hadn't heard the news yet. "He'll be so sorry when he finds out," Bat-Galim said, feeling sorry for him.

Before Shabbat, the family asked for some peace and quiet. They hung a sign on the door saying "we thank you for respecting our privacy." I went home to light candles, crying with the match still in my hand and asking for salvation. The roads in our community became filled with anxious anticipation. Everything was breathing together.

In the morning, all the neighbors had red, puffy eyes left over from a terrible, sleepless night. People said to each other, from the bottom of their hearts, hoarse with fear, "Let's hope for good news."

During Shabbat, the house was full. The extended family had arrived. Education Ministry official Rabbi Rani Sagi, who was once the principal of Bat-Galim's school, spent day and night with the family, giving them strength with the optimism he derives from the Torah. Community members, strangers and people in uniform passed through the door incessantly. The hosts welcomed everyone warmly, giving personal attention to every person, repeating the answers to the same questions with endless patience, saying "there is no new information" over and over. Every so often, Bat-Galim would retire to her room for a few minutes to have a private conversation with God.

When Shabbat ended, the bubble of tense calm burst. Reporters and photographers filled the narrow street and public officials swarmed to the house for the first time (they were to come again in the days that followed). Bat-Galim was focused, to the point, paying attention to everyone who entered. As more and more people arrived, she never tired. She occasionally hugged one of her daughters with great love. Occasionally she exchanged meaningful looks with her husband. The relationship between Bat-Galim and Ophir is enviable, as is the family they have.

Mornings are the hardest

On Sunday, Talmon resembled a military war room. The neighbors were soldiers. The ammunition was love. There was a spokesperson's unit, there was a unit in charge of the children, and there were units in charge of cooking and keeping the refrigerator full. Everyone lent a hand. Everyone wanted to contribute in some way, to run around and do something -- get watermelon slices for the reporters, trim the hedges, whatever. Anything was better than being idle. Fingers, burning with worry, had to be doing something. The children handed out ice pops to the police officers manning the street and made posters for when the boys return. Dozens of people skipped their normal routine, stayed home from work. The reporters and the defense officials spent the night in the homes of neighbors.

Politicians and influential figures arrived at the home, surprised by the warm welcome. Did they expect rage? Indignation? All they saw was pain ingrained into tired faces and acute worry. Were the ministers afraid that they would be yelled at? All they got was a blessing and the family's earnest faith. Did the visitors think they were there to support and console? They left in awe of the level of faith they encountered.

For the millionth time, Ophir and Bat-Galim recounted the night of the abduction, giving a minute-by-minute account. Bat-Galim asked her relatives not to listen to the news, so they wouldn't be sad. "Wait for a phone call from us," she said. "We'll wake you up even in the middle of the night to tell you that Gil-ad is back."

Iris, the mother of Eyal Yifrach (who was three years older than Gil-ad and Naftali), called Bat-Galim to say that "if I know my son, he is probably protecting Gil-ad and Naftali; keeping them safe."

In the yard, under one of the trees, Gil-ad's 17-year-old friends sat around a table, quietly studying Torah. They studied 24 hours a day, for two and a half weeks.

Bat-Galim and Ophir got very little sleep. Their days were filled with meetings with high-ranking officials and with welcoming the many guests that crossed the country to visit their tiny community atop the hill. The visitors brought stories of prayers for the boys from around the world. Ophir said that he had to pinch himself to make sure it wasn't a dream.

At night, the neighbors stood in the streets, unable to sleep. Every night, I promised them that the next day they would read my moving article in the newspaper about Gil-ad's safe return. Every morning I failed to fulfill that promise.

"Mornings are the hardest," Bat-Galim said. "I wake up and I can't believe that we are meeting the sun again and he is not here yet." Her faith in his return was unshakable. Her gaze wandered toward the door.

"This can't end badly," she said. "It would cause such a terrible break. We can't afford this kind of desecration of God's name. Our nation would break apart." That is what she was thinking about just then: about the crisis of faith that the people would endure, not about herself.

Someone complimented her on her strength. "Me?" she asked, shrugging. "Where would I get strength? I told God that he picked the wrong person. If I have strength, I get it from the people of Israel."

The police commissioner came to the house. "Topographically, this is not an easy area to comb," he explained. He is not one to bring big news. "We are investigating the call received by a police dispatcher, the camera footage from the intersections, forensic evidence, mobile phone signals. The more antennas there are in the vicinity, the more information we'll have."

Bat-Galim asked him if there are a lot of antennas in the area they were investigating. "Fewer than in Ramat Gan," was his reply, then silence.

In a noble manner, out of respect for the man in uniform, Ophir and Bat-Galim raised some polite questions for the commissioner to answer. They commended the on-call officer who took their complaint seriously when their son went missing. They let the past be the past.

"Say the police did something wrong. What will it help now?" they said to the commissioner. "The most important thing now is to get to the children. Conclusions should be drawn, but don't waste your time on that now. Focus on rescuing them."

Reports of mass prayers around the country and the world, of flags being waved at intersections, of all the other initiatives, provided a modicum of solace. "The question is how to maintain this unity and loftiness at times when there isn't pain involved," Bat-Galim wondered. "I tell God, you want us to be better? You want to polish us? We will be better, just bring our boys home. Our patience is running out."

The military officers who met with the family received a lingering embrace. Bat-Galim made sure they weren't thirsty, that they got some rest, that they were able to sleep. She was genuinely worried about them. She thanked them over and over, emphasizing the parallels between them. "We don't sleep and you don't sleep," she said. "I have no words to thank you."

She had one request: that every time someone mentions the boys in prayer, they also pray for the soldiers and security forces.

"Are you getting any sleep?" asked one of her friends. "I get a hundred text messages every day -- the people of Israel giving me strength. Before I go to bed, I read them, wrap myself in that love, in these people, and I fall asleep," she replied.

"I want to be anonymous again," Ophir sighed. "I don't want to meet presidents and ministers. That's not us. We just want Gil-ad back."

It took a lot of pressure on behalf of the media outlets, but finally Ophir agreed to come out of the house and say a few words to reporters. He deliberated whether he should address Gil-ad directly, on the off chance that his son was watching a television screen somewhere.

"It's not good to address Gil-ad directly," Bat-Galim said, shrinking with worry. "I am afraid that if he sees his parents crying it will devastate him."

In the end he only said one simple statement directly to Gil-ad, and it pinched people's hearts like a vise grip: "I miss wrapping you up in a tallit while reciting the priestly blessing."

The first week ended with a powerful rally in Talmon. On the way to prayer, Bat-Galim walked ahead of the group. I watched her, going to pray for her son, to bring him to her. During the prayer, the congregation cried and yelled, like trumpets rattling the rooms of the heart. It felt as though the entire synagogue rose to the heavens and then came back down.

The second week began. Their schedules, managed by volunteers from Talmon, became rather busy. They traveled to meet with the prime minister, the president and the heads of the defense establishment. These parents grabbed tightly onto the authorities' working assumption that the boys were alive. They demanded that all the decision makers adhere to that assumption.

The days began pouring into one another, the days confused with the nights. Bat-Galim nearly lost count at one point. On Monday morning, a decision was made: The mothers of the three boys were going to fly to Geneva to address the U.N. Human Rights Council. Ophir stayed behind with their five daughters.

"I feel like I am going with her, we are together, and it doesn't matter if our bodies are in Talmon or in Switzerland," Ophir said to me. "On the other hand, this is the first time that we will be apart since this nightmare began. I will miss her terribly."

I helped Bat-Galim decide what to wear on a trip to Europe. They later discovered that it didn't matter so much what they wore, because the Europe didn't listen. The Human Rights Council was apathetic and impatient. "It was a nightmare," Bat-Galim recounted. "Like a nightmare within a nightmare. We felt like Jews begging to the Polish landowner. We were ashamed. The world is indifferent."

Someone recalled the travels of Aviva and Noam Schalit, the parents of Gilad Schalit, while their son was in captivity, and Bat-Galim was appalled by the comparison. To her, the five years that Schalit was held captive seemed like an eternity. A logo was designed for people to use on their Facebook pages -- a negative image of the three boys' photos -- reminiscent of the graphic used in the campaign for Schalit. Bat-Galim was horrified when she saw it.

Inside their own private worry, Bat-Galim and Ophir never stopped worrying about the people around them. Thank you for coming, Ophir said to every person who entered their house. Aren't you warm? Bat-Galim asked the reporters. Ophir heard that one of the police officers that had accompanied them since Friday, Eitan Madmoni, had a birthday and could not celebrate with his family. He asked the neighbors to help him organize a cake and balloons. When Madmoni came in, everyone sang "happy birthday" and cried.

The recording of the emergency call that Gil-ad made to the police after he was kidnapped was all anyone could talk about. "If only the conclusions drawn will ensure that another person is never kidnapped," Bat-Galim said to the public security minister. "It is a shame to waste our energy now. Put all your efforts into bringing home the children. Time is critical. The boy is counting on us."

At times, Bat-Galim looked as though she was surrounded by light, and at other times, she looked like a shadow was obscuring her face. But she was constantly keeping busy, and attuned to every shred of information. Her patience was astounding, but it was very difficult to tell what was going on inside. "I am afraid to say thank you to the people of Israel," she said one day. "It feels like a conclusion. This is not the time to say thank you. We still need the people's help, their prayers."

Another day passed, and they were exhausted and terrified. But they didn't have the luxury of giving up. "The pain is pain. It burns inside. But I don't let the difficulty win," Bat-Galim said. She managed to control her thoughts and to channel them toward visualizing her son coming home. She had trouble falling asleep, but once she fell asleep, she would sleep without dreaming. Without nightmares.

"The thing holding Gil-ad is the knowledge that we are on our way to him. He is a smart boy. He has read books and newspapers. He is resourceful and he has a good head on his shoulders. He knows that the State of Israel will not abandon him," Bat-Galim said.

To that, Ophir added that "We are not making a lot of noise in the media, but we are firm. We will ask the right people the most difficult questions. There is no point in warmongering in the press. We saw the security forces go deep into the field, we met with the top echelon of the defense establishment, we saw that there was real work being done."

"The defense officials who visit our home are human, modest, professional -- they know their stuff. With people like that, we have no doubt that the state is doing all it can. But we're keeping our ear to the ground to make sure everything is being done," he said.

I accompanied them on a trip to Jerusalem one day to meet with the Knesset speaker, several Knesset members, and representatives of Jewish communities around the world. "The circumstances forced me to do things I would never do otherwise," Ophir told me on the way. He is a modest, gentle man who found himself on television one day. "Over the last two weeks I have turned into a different person. For him. I keep Gil-ad in my mind's eye and I draw strength from him."

"The first thought I had when I realized that it was a kidnapping was that I cannot lose my only son," he said to me on the way back to Talmon. "The bad thoughts are there. I can't erase them. So I tell them to move aside for now. I clear room in my head for doing. I focus on things that can bring me closer to Gil-ad. I have a strong feeling that we have been assigned a mission or a duty. I don't have an explanation, but the fact that we are here in this place is an enormous responsibility. But I am not a saint. I have the feelings of a father, I want to protect my son, hug him. I have moments when I break down.

I observed Bat-Galim and Ophir invest a lot of energy into maintaining a semblance of normalcy in the house. On the second Shabbat, after they were taken care of by the community, Ophir insisted on washing the floors himself. When I came by to say Shabbat Shalom before Shabbat begins, I saw Ophir moving furniture and cleaning the house.

"It's therapy," he said. They fought hard to maintain the rules of the house, seeking the comfort of a familiar routine: making sure 7-year-old Hallel goes to bed on time, that 4-year-old Maor doesn't eat too many gummy bears she found in care packages, that the girls clean their rooms. Amid all the terrible noise between their ears, they still have to be parents not only to Gil-ad. So they went to the kindergarten end-of-year party and to the recorder recital.

Last Wednesday, when I asked Ophir if there was anything he felt it was important to say and suggested maybe a message to the government, instead he chose a message of love. "A child's strength is made up of drops of love and warmth that we give him throughout his childhood. It is his fuel, and he can use it at times like this, and at other times. I am convinced that some of the strength keeping Gil-ad comes from that.

"I want to urge everyone to cherish those moments when they hug their children. Breathe deeply, even when you're mad. Understand what it is to hug a child: It is to give him strength in the future. The way to build up a child is not to send him to classes or to criticize him but to give him faith, acceptance, love, an embrace."

"Don't get me wrong, we are not some utopian story of a father and son marching into the sunset. Keep in mind that Gil-ad is a teenager. There were arguments too. One time there was tension between us and Gil-ad was at yeshiva. I called him and told him: 'Whatever happens, know that I love you. Just know that.' There was silence on the other side. I miss telling him that I love him now so much."

The rally and then the worst of all

Last Sunday, a rally was held in Tel Aviv to support the families. In was only the following day that it became so clear why it was important to tell them that they are not alone and to hug them in the big square. On stage, in front of thousands of people, three mothers made of steel stood there, hurting, inspiring.

Loud applause accompanied Bat-Galim to the podium. I watched her face closely: It was hard for her. She never wanted the applause of the masses. She never wanted to stand on stages. Her face grimaced in pain when the applause refused to subside. But they left that rally slightly elevated, like they received crutches made of the people's love.

The next day, Monday, it all came crashing down. The bodies were found. They were positively identified.

I recalled Bat-Galim's remarks from a week prior. "I have an entire production planned out in my head for the celebration of Gil-ad's return. I imagine all the details. Everyone who visits us gets an invitation to the thanksgiving feast."

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who was sitting with the family in the yard at the time, said that in honor of the thanksgiving feast he would be willing to sing a duet with Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett on stage, and even approve a temporary expansion of Talmon so that it can house all the guests of the feast. "But only temporary," he smiled.

"My hope is that it will happen today," Bat-Galim replied, wearing a serious expression. "I won't be able to look Gil-ad in the eye if he spends one needless day in captivity. I want our conscience to be clear, for his sisters' sake too. So that we can say we did everything we could."

At Gil-ad's funeral, I wanted to tell him: Gil-ad, my dear beloved Gil-ad, we did everything we could. Your parents, your friends, your community, the Israel Defense Forces, that elusive thing called a people, we did everything we could.


Updates throughout the day at If you enjoy "Love of the Land", please be a subscriber. Just put your email address in the "Subscribe" box on the upper right-hand corner of the page.Twitter updates at LoveoftheLand as well as our Love of the Land page at Facebook which has additional pieces of interest besides that which is posted on the blog. Check-it out!

No comments:

Post a Comment