After two weeks of hope, a community mourns slain Israeli teens

Only 18 days after joining together in a hopeful prayer vigil for three Israeli teenage boys abducted at a bus stop outside their school, 1,500 members of the Los Angeles Jewish community grieved together in a memorial service for the teens—Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Frenkel—whose bodies were found on June 30 in a field north of Hebron.

Teary-eyed audience members embraced one another in the dimly lit sanctuary at Beth Jacob Congregation, as Leehy Shaar, the aunt of Gilad, eulogized her nephew and denounced his kidnappers, garnering multiple rounds of applause over the course of her ten-minute speech.

Standing on the bimah beside three yahrtzeit candles and in front of photographs of the three slain teens, Shaar said that she had been hoping to plan a major celebration for the day that her nephew would be rescued alive.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Shaar said about the death of her brother’s son. “For the last 18 days, never for a moment did I ever think that Gilad, my dear nephew, was anything but alive.”

Shaar, who recently moved to Los Angeles to receive medical treatment, shared with those in attendance the meaning behind the Hebrew name “Gilad,” or “happy forever.”

“I always thought he’d be ‘Gilad,’ happy forever, but the terrorists brought a sudden end to ‘forever,’” she said. “He was my wonderful, talented, bright and cool nephew.”

The audience applauded when Shaar said that Israelis should be able to live securely in the West Bank and towns like Alon Shvut, where the teenagers were kidnapped just down the road from the high school that two of them attended.

Leehy Shaar, the aunt of Gilad Shaar.

“We, as proud Jews, have a right to stand in our land,” she said. “It’s not a crime.”

Holding back tears, she expressed gratitude for the Israeli military’s restless search for the boys and to the local Jewish community, which, since news broke of her nephew’s kidnapping, has embraced and supported her.

Throughout the hour-long service, the messages from six speakers conveyed a mixture of sadness and grief, with Israel’s local consul general, David Siegel, reflecting on the unity of Jews around the world since the kidnapping.

“We are one nation, from Beverly Hills to Jerusalem,” Siegel said. “We pray together, we hope together and tonight, unfortunately, we cry together.”

He added that Israel, in its hunt for the two Hamas suspects, “Will leave no stone unturned, literally, until justice is done.”

Rabbi Adir Posy, who led the service, read a communal blessing in Hebrew for the Israeli military, also asking those in attendance to stand respectfully for the “Mourners Kaddish,” a traditional synagogue prayer recited by Jewish mourners.

The evening concluded with a rendition of the Israeli national anthem, led by Cantor Arik Wollheim and local teenage members of the international religious Zionist youth group, B’nai Akiva, of which Gilad Shaar was also a member.

At 8 p.m., as the synagogue slowly emptied, a few community members lingered behind. Charles Hale, a member of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, related how “chilling” it was for him to hear, earlier in the day, the just-released audio of an emergency call placed by Gilad Shaar just after the kidnapping.

Multiple media outlets have reported that Israeli investigators believe the abductors shot the boys to death upon realizing an emergency call had been placed.

Shanee Michaelson, a Beth Jacob congregant, told the Journal it was difficult for her to focus at her office when it was announced Monday that the teens’ bodies were discovered.

“I really thought they were going to survive,” a somber Michaelson said.

With aunt of kidnapped yeshiva student in attendance, hundreds of L.A. Jews pray for safe return

Hundreds of Jews gathered in Los Angeles Sunday evening at Beth Jacob Congregation for a communal prayer service in response to the Jun. 12 kidnappings of three Israeli yeshiva students by Palestinian terrorists near the West Bank towns of Gush Etzion and Alon Shvut.

As the aunt of Gilad Shaar, Lihi, listened and prayed from the front row, Rabbi Kalman Topp, Beth Jacob’s senior rabbi, called on the community to pray for the quick and safe return of Shaar, 16, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19.

 “The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] and security forces are doing all they can to locate the three boys—our boys, our brethren—and bring them home safely and quickly—but we are not in a position to do so,” Topp said, explaining how Jews not serving in Israel’s military can and should respond. “We can make a difference and we are responsible to pray to Hashem that Hashem should make a difference.”

As various leading rabbis in the Orthodox community read aloud from five chapters of Tehillim (Psalms), the hundreds in attendance followed suit, responsively reciting each portion aloud. David Siegel, Israel's Consul General in Los Angeles, was also present. It has long been customary in Orthodox neighborhoods to communally recite Psalms during particularly challenging times.

The three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped Thursday evening as they were attempting to hitchhike on a road south of Jerusalem, hoping to return home for Shabbat. Shaar and Fraenkel are both students at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim, a yeshiva in Gush Etzion run by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, one of the most renowned Torah scholars in the world.

In March, Racheli Sprecher Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali and an American-born Israeli, spent a Shabbat in Pico-Robertson, speaking at B’nai David-Judea Congregation on Jewish laws relating to marriage and sexuality.

On Sunday, she tearfully addressed Israeli media outside her family’s Nof Ayalon home, thanking the military and those praying for the teenagers’ return.

According to the Jerusalem Post, on Thursday evening one of the boys called police at 10:30 p.m. and said, “We’ve been kidnapped.”

Police reportedly did not relate that phone call to the military for up to five hours. 

American kidnapped by al-Qaida asks Netanyahu to intervene

Kidnapped American Warren Weinstein called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help free him from his al-Qaida captors.

The plea from Weinstein, 71, was included in a video released by al-Qaida late Wednesday night.

“As a Jew, I am appealing to you, Prime Minister Netanyahu, the head of the Jewish State of Israel, as one Jew to another, to please intervene on my behalf, to work with the mujahideen and to accept their demands so that I can be released and returned to my family, see my wife, my children and my grandchildren again,” he said in the video, according to reports.

Weinstein, of Rockville, Md., also said the U.S. government has “no interest” in his case.

He was kidnapped in August 2011 outside Pakistan while he was working for J.E. Austin Associates, a private company that advises Pakistani businesses.

In May he appealed to President Obama to save his life.

“My life is in your hands, Mr. President,” Weinstein, a former Peace Corps and USAID official, said on the video posted on Islamist websites. “If you accept the demands, I live. If you don't accept the demands, then I die. It's important that you accept the demands and act quickly and don't delay.”

The demands included a halt to U.S. airstrikes and the freeing of all al-Qaida and Taliban suspects, according to reports.

The United States has said it will not negotiate with al-Qaida, which the United States designates as a terrorist organization.

In a video released in March, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said he would swap Weinstein for prisoners in the U.S. with links to the organization. The video noted that Weinstein was Jewish.

Prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit underway

A long-awaited prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas began before dawn on Tuesday when the first of hundreds of Palestinian inmates were bused from their jails to border crossings where they will be swapped for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The first phase of the exchange, expected to take several hours, will end a saga that has gripped Israelis over the five years of Shalit’s captivity in Gaza.

A long and heavily guarded convoy left a prison in Israel’s southern Negev desert where the majority of inmates had been held. A small group of female prisoners departed from a second jail in the center of the country.

Most prisoners will be taken to the Kerem Shalom crossing that borders Egypt and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Others will be released in the West Bank.

Egypt, which helped broker the deal, will receive Shalit from his Hamas captors and hand him over to Israel at the same time as the 477 Palestinians are officially released.

The deal received a green light from Israel’s Supreme Court late on Monday after it rejected petitions from the public to prevent the mass release of prisoners, many serving life sentences for deadly attacks.

Story continues after the jump.

Shalit, now 25, was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and surprised his tank crew, killing two of his comrades. He has since been held incommunicado and was last seen looking pale and thin in a 2009 video shot by his captors.

Upon his release, Shalit will be flown by helicopter to an air base in the center of Israel where he will be greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reunited with his family. Later he will fly to his home in northern Israel.

In the second phase of the swap, expected to take place in about two months, a further 550 Palestinian prisoners will be freed, officials said.

The repatriation of captured soldiers, alive or dead, has long been an emotionally charged issue for Israelis. Many have served in the military as conscripts and see it as sacrosanct. But they also feel stung by the high price they feel Israel is paying for Shalit.

Story continues after the jump.

Video courtesy of policegovil

“I understand the difficulty in accepting that the vile people who committed the heinous crimes against your loved ones will not pay the full price they deserve,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter, released by his office, to bereaved Israeli families.

Hamas prepared a heroes’ welcome in Gaza for 295 of those due to be sent to the coastal territory. Palestinians regard those jailed by Israel as prisoners of war in a struggle for statehood. Israel has some 6,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the point that the prisoners left their jails “a historic moment.”

Of the prisoners, 41 will be exiled to Turkey, Qatar and Syria.

Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, tightened its blockade of the coastal territory after Shalit was seized and taken there.

The deal with Hamas is not expected to have a direct impact on efforts to revive Middle East peace talks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival, has been pursuing U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood in the absence of negotiations with Israel that collapsed 13 months ago.

Additional reporting by Rami Amichai, Ronen Zvulun, Ari Rabinovitch and Nidal al-Mughrabi and Douglas Hamilton in Gaza and Tom Perry in Ramallah; Editing by Matthew Jones

Sen. McCain to Help Find Kidnapped Israelis

For 10 months, the families of four Israelis kidnapped by Hezbollah have been waiting for their loved ones to return home. Now the families have found a new source of hope, after U.S. lawmakers and Jewish groups indicated that the families’ crusade has not been forgotten and that a new effort will be launched to get the four back.

But amid the uncertainty they have had to contend with since the abductions, the families now have to deal with a U.N. report indicating that as many as three of the four kidnap victims may have suffered serious injuries when they were abducted across the Israeli-Lebanese border — and that some or all of them may no longer be alive.

Last October, Hezbollah gunmen kidnapped three Israeli soldiers — Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad — from a disputed border area known as Shabaa Farms.

Shortly after, Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, who also serves as a colonel in the Israeli reserves.

Israeli military officers and diplomats on Wednesday viewed videotapes made by U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon three hours after the soldiers were abducted. The Israeli team also inspected seven bloodstained items retrieved by U.N. peacekeepers from vehicles apparently used by Hezbollah in the kidnapping.

After viewing the tapes, Israel’s UN representative, Yehuda Lancry, affirmed the UN’s claim that the information in the videotapes does not shed new light on the soldiers, and added that it is not clear if the bloodstained articles belonged to the soldiers.

Last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced he would take part in an international commission to get information about the four and secure their release.

There has been no word from Hezbollah about the condition or fate of the prisoners despite repeated attempts by the families and the International Red Cross to gain information and access to the men.

"These families deserve to know," McCain said when he made his announcement on Aug. 2.

McCain also said he would work with Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) on legislation calling for increased U.S. involvement in the effort to bring the four Israelis home.

His comment came one day before U.N. officials released a report indicating that the three Israeli soldiers who were kidnapped suffered serious, possibly even critical, injuries.

Many feel McCain’s prominence will speed along a solution and that the senator’s personal history will raise the issue’s profile.

In 1967, McCain, a naval aviator, was shot down over Vietnam and held as a POW in Hanoi for five and a half years, much of it in solitary confinement.

"All of Israel appreciates his efforts," Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., said last week.

McCain accepted a pin depicting a blue ribbon of solidarity for the MIAs. Many officials wore stickers that read "Adi, Benjamin, Omar — Mother is Waiting."

The atmosphere at last week’s announcement on the Senate steps — attended by the World Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and other groups — was disturbed somewhat by protesters who shouted and held placards with such anti-Israel slogans as: "Condemn Israel’s Aggression" and "Free Palestinian POWs in Israel."

The families of the four kidnap victims came to Washington, D.C. to thank those involved with the increased efforts, including Israeli Ambassador David Ivry and former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

The family members were hopeful, but their words were mixed with pain.

After so many disappointments, Avitan’s father, Ya’acov, said he was optimistic that this is now "a turning point."

Saoud’s father, Qassem, said his son’s children, ages 3 and 5, cry for their father every day.

Tannenbaum’s son, Ori, said, "I am haunted by anxiety day and night."

Avraham Burg, the speaker of the Israeli Knesset, said he wants to continue pressuring the United Nations and the Red Cross and drumming up international support.

"This is a process which addresses the conscience of the world," he said.

A day later, U.N. officials provided some information about the kidnapping of the three soldiers.

In an 18-page report released last Friday, the officials presented the findings of an internal U.N. investigation into the handling of a videotape shot at the scene hours after the three soldiers were kidnapped.

After denying for months that a videotape existed, U.N. officials reversed course last month and ordered an investigation.

The report included the assessment of a senior U.N. peacekeeper in Lebanon that the three soldiers may have died from their wounds.

It also indicated that there were not one but two videotapes.

The report acknowledged that U.N. officials had failed to keep Israel informed, but that this had resulted from "lapses in judgment and failures to communicate, not from conspiracies."

The report left open questions regarding the role some U.N. peacekeepers may have played in the kidnapping.

Israeli officials later said they appreciated U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s willingness to launch an investigation. But the officials criticized the United Nations for taking so long to offer information about the soldiers’ possible condition.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said this week the Israeli defense establishment is working under the assumption that the soldiers are still alive.

"We have no information to say they are not alive," Ben-Eliezer said in television interviews over the weekend.

Haim Avraham, father of one of the kidnapped soldiers, said he believed U.N. officials have additional "important details about the kidnapping of the boys, which must be disclosed."

For months, contacts have been held via third parties regarding an exchange of the Israeli abductees for Arab prisoners held by Israel.

Portions of one of the videos have already been broadcast on Israel’s Channel Two Television. They show U.N. officials trying to tow two cars that were apparently used by the kidnappers and later abandoned.

A U.N. spokesman who viewed the video said that the cars contained bloodstains, explosive materials and equipment belonging to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, as the peacekeepers are called.

According to reports, the cars had forged UNIFIL license plates.

Rallies and protests over the past several months have sought to increase awareness about the four kidnap victims.

At a rally last month in New York, campers from Young Judaea’s Tel Yehudah solicited signatures for a petition calling on U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other political leaders to take action on behalf of the missing Israelis.

Israel has also been seeking information about three soldiers missing in action in Lebanon since 1982.

Zachariah Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz disappeared June 11, 1982, in the Battle of Sultan Yakoub at the beginning of Israel’s war in Lebanon.

Their families have since launched an international effort to obtain information regarding their whereabouts.

In 1999, President Clinton signed a law that requires the United States to raise the cases of the three MIAs when it meets with the governments of Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, the law calls on U.S. officials to take into consideration the willingness of the three governments to help secure the return of such soldiers when considering financial aid.

JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.