MODIIN, Israel (JTA) – They were their mothers’ sons. They were all of our sons. They were dear boys. They were martyrs for Israel. They were funny, clever, creative. They are the messengers of the Jewish people in heaven.
The joint funeral Tuesday of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach provided a capstone to a harrowing ordeal that over 18 days united Israelis in hope and prayer. When the teens were found dead Monday night, their bodies lying half exposed in a field near Hebron, the national outpouring became one of grief and despair.
It is simultaneously a national tragedy for Israel and a personal one for the boys’ families. And at the funeral and the memorials preceding it, the national and personal melded together.
The country shared in the families’ tragedy. The families became national heroes.
“We prayed, each of us alone and all of us together, for a miracle,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres in his eulogy. “We prayed that we would see them return in peace to the families, to their homes and to us all. Sadly we were hit by the tragedy of their murder and a deep grief enveloped our people.”
When news of the boys’ death hit Monday night, Israelis looked lost, unsure how to proceed after more than two apprehensive weeks since the teens were kidnapped on June 12 while hitchhiking in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Etzion.
At Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square – the site just a day before of a packed, loud concert in solidarity with the boys’ families – a much more subdued vigil coalesced. A few men sat on the floor with guitars singing as several others lit candles that spelled out the boys’ names. Soon the crowd swelled to hundreds, all singing songs of mourning and comfort.
The next day, outside the synagogue in the rural central Israeli town of Shaalvim, a crowd of hundreds milled in an open field. Five boys sat on the ground reading from prayer books. Some people spoke in hushed tones. Most stayed silent, exhausted from the heat, beaten by the tragedy. They were the neighbors, the friends, the family of Naftali Fraenkel.
Shaalvim resident Debbie Schuval noted the emotions and hope that had been invested in the teens returning home.
“There was almost this energy of mission, this energy that was buzzing about,” she said. “By last night the energy just dissolved and it was just quiet.”
A microphone stood underneath a bare frame meant for a wedding canopy, against the backdrop of a large Israeli flag. Speaker after speaker – the village rabbi, Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron, Fraenkel’s grandfathers and parents – told the largely religious Zionist crowd about the 16-year-old’s tenderness and the state’s resilience. Some mixed memories of the boy with calls for a forceful strike against Hamas, which Israel blames for the murders, or for increased Israeli settlement in the West Bank.