May 20, 2024
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May 20, 2024
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Israeli President, Jerusalem Mayor, Inaugurate Annual Unity Day and Award First Jerusalem Unity Prize

JERUSALEM—“Last summer, like thousands of Israeli citizens, I came to visit the shiva (mourning) house of the Frankel, Sha’er and Yifrach families. In the weeks before the difficult news, we all remember the power of the unified prayer for the three youths. In these events, we saw all of Am Yisrael (the Jewish Nation) together. At the Kotel, we saw thousands of all different types of Jews, younger and older, praying together shoulder to shoulder. When Asaf Yifrach said Shir Hama’alot, there was not a dry eye in the crowd. The choice of the families to bury their three sons next to each other, even though they are from different communities, truly brought this point home—last summer, we united as one.”

These are the words of Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat, last Wednesday, in his introduction to the first annual Jewish Unity Day. Barkat, in cooperation with the Frankel, She’ar and Yifrach families, created this day in honor of the incredible unity that came about from the terrible tragedies of last summer.

“I think this is one of the greatest demonstrations we’ve had in a long time,” said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK and one of the organizers of Unity Day, in an exclusive interview with JLNJ. “[Today] shows us just how much unites us, and how grief brought us together last summer and this unity continues to keep us together.”

With the help of Gesher, an international organization dedicated to “bridging the gap” (if you’ll pardon the Hebrew pun…) between the different layers of Jewish society, International Jewish Unity Day was born.

Unity Day comprises three elements, symbolic of the three boys in whose memory the day was created: the Unity Day Conference, the Jerusalem Unity Prize and Unity Day International. Yoni Sherizen, the Director of Resource and Program Development at Gesher, explains:

“At the Shiva, Nir Barkat turned to the families and was inspired by their positive actions, and how the families harnessed this positive energy … [Barkat] approached them and said, ‘This is a befitting legacy for your boys,’ and he offered to create a prize in memory of them. The families and Barkat approached Gesher and asked us to bring it to life, to create the prizes.

“We [at Gesher] created the three elements of the prize—a conference to bring leaders of Israeli society and community leaders together for a day of bringing depth to the subject; to present the prize to befitting ventures of Jewish Unity and to arrange activities so that Jews around the world, who had prayed and united for the boys, could once again unite, beyond tragedy, for peace and good.”

Unity Day Conference

On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds gathered in the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem’s Talbiah neighborhood for the first annual Unity Day Conference. Aside from the Jewish leaders and Gesher staff, some 10 or 15 organizations, each of which helps spread Jewish unity throughout the world, had set up stands promoting their particular flavor of achdut.

One organization, which stood out in its global reach, was the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2Gether program, a school-twinning network of over 600 institutions, pairing schools in Israel with ones in the Diaspora, represented on every continent except Antarctica. Most religious elementary schools in Northern New Jersey participate in this program, with RYNJ and Ben Porat Yosef both paired with Even Shalom Elementary in Nahariya, and Yavneh and Moriah with Rambam Elementary also in Nahariya.

“We connected Jews of Israel and the Diaspora and try to fight the challenge that Jews don’t know one another,” explained Amihai Bannett, a representative of Partnership 2Gether. “The Jewish Agency works to connect a Jew with his nation and his land, and the network of schools at Partnership 2Gether… aims to help Jews of a young age reconnect with their brothers abroad. We have every type of school—different ages, different levels of education and religiosity—and the students meet virtually outside of school too, to build a deep connection that will last forever.”

As the afternoon continued, the conference shifted to the auditorium at Van Leer, where the formalities began. Speeches from Ilan Gal-Dor, Director General of Gesher, and Efraim Halevi, former director of the Mossad, both followed in the theme of the day’s celebration—the celebration of the good that came from a painful tragedy. The program continued with panels of Jewish leaders, Israeli media personalities (many of whom with opposing views) and finally with the parents of Naftali, Eyal and Gil’ad.

The takeaway from the Unity Day Conference, as put so eloquently by Iris Yifrach, mother of Eyal, was, “Achdut (unity) is something which is in each of us, in our smiles and in our feelings—it strengthens us. In times of tragedy, seeing this in each other brings us together. We need to let our achdut out, embrace each other and unite every day.”

Jerusalem Unity Prize Award

After the conference, the Unity Day festivities continued next door at the residence of the President of Israel, with the ceremony of the awarding of the Jerusalem Unity Prize. The pomp and circumstance of the venue lent extra meaning to an already evocative event.

“We were very happy when President Rivlin offered to host the ceremony,” said Avi Frankel, father of Naftali. “We think this is the most appropriate thing to do. The President of Israel is a representative of the State and of all Jewish people abroad, in a way. This is the best place to give a prize of unity.”

The ceremony began with a heart-rending song of mourning, sung by the Vok Hatikva choir, whose very makeup of Israelis all over the spectrum of religiosity and origin shows the power of Jewish unity. The Master of Ceremonies, Israeli TV personality Orli Vilani, gave a moving introduction on the power of making something good out of a terrible tragedy, and outlined the three prizes, in memory of the three boys, that would be presented. Each prize winner, said Mayor Barkat in his introduction to the prizes, “translates the idea of unity from a paper definition into the wild, bringing it to people.”

Barkat emphasized that he was proud of each of the thousands of candidates for the Unity Prize, even the ones who didn’t end up winning. “This unity is part of the DNA of our nation, and this is the purpose of the prize—how we can encourage this unity and grow it bigger.”

The first prize, The Israel-Diaspora Unity Prize, was given to the Chabad House of Bangkok, Thailand, under the management of Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm. R’ Wilhelm took over operation of the Bangkok Chabad House, and, under his leadership, it has grown in its mission to help the over 200,000 Israelis who pass through the Thai capital every year. They offer Shabbat meals, as well as Kosher restaurants, instruments for a casual kumzitz (sing-along), computer stations and telephones for staying in touch with home.

R’ Wilhelm says that he truly feels the unity as he looks around his Shabbat table, where oftentimes 400 Jews of different stripes, shapes and sizes sit together to celebrate Shabbat. “When people leave Israel, their minds become much more open, so when they come to us in Bangkok, the barriers break down, and they can speak to other Jews that they wouldn’t usually relate to.

“When the Mayor [Nir Barkat] called me and told me that we had won the prize, I felt a lot of energy and power, strength to continue here and become stronger and stronger. I believe that this prize isn’t just for me, but is mostly for the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who started the whole movement of Chabad houses all over the world. This is what we’re doing—we’re getting Jewish people together. This Unity Prize is for the Rebbe and all of the achdut his projects have created in the world.”

Next up was the Social Initiative Prize, given to the Nifgashim BeShvil Yisrael program. Nifgashim BeShvil Yisrael, which translates to “Meeting on the Path of Israel,” is an initiative founded by Raya and Yossi Ofner in memory of their son Avi, who was killed in the IDF in 1997. What began as their family’s personal memorial hike on the iconic Israeli path between Eilat and Sha’ar Yashuv, turned into a solidarity march as 250 people joined from different communities along the hike, to honor the memories of Avi and others who had been killed in military service.

As they repeated the hike the next year, and the crowd grew even larger, Raya and Yossi decided to expand their journey, and invite all different types of Jews and Israelis to hike together, and use the outdoors as a means of fostering unity between them. This past year’s Nifgashim hosted over 8000 participants, some joining for the entire two-month journey, others for as short as a day or two. Especially moving was the inclusion of over 300 disabled, blind and deaf people, who hiked with the group during a less intensive part of the hike near Tel Aviv. The results, said Raya, were visible in hours, as the barriers broke down and everyone began talking about their collective strong feelings for Israel, setting aside their differences.

With the prize money, Nifgashim hopes to expand their trip, which currently runs from right after Purim until a very meaningful closing event on Yom Hazikaron, to be even longer, incorporating new Olim, soldiers and youth organizations. “Our dream,” said Raya, “is to see all of Israel embarking on the Shvil Yisrael (path of Israel, and also Israeli journey) together.”

The last award, the Unity Prize to Individuals, was divided between two recipients, Brigadier General (retired) Ram Shmueli and Harav Chacham David Menachem, both of whom use their respective talents to bring Jews together.

Ever since being honorably discharged from the IDF, Shmeuli has dedicated his life to enabling a unified Jewish future, by organizing meetings among social, educational and business organizations from every point in the Israeli spectrum. His project, dubbed Metchabrim, which translates to “Getting Connected,” aims to involve all sectors of Israeli society to build a single, united future. “We have a responsibility for the future of the Jewish People,” said Shmueli. “We are… different people of different generations, but we have a great responsibility to Metchaber everyone together.”

Harav David Menachem, a proud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem native) and close student of Rav Ovadya, uses his Sefardi heritage, rabbinic ordination and musical abilities to bring all types of Jews and even Israeli Muslims together through music, and leave his mark on nearly every type of Israeli musical genre. His outreach, especially among Israeli youth, has helped him make his specialties of poetry, Halacha and Zionism, “cool again.” Rav Menachem attributes his inspiration to his uncle, also a Yerushalmi, who was killed while serving in the army. “[When I was told I won the prize],” said Menachem, “I felt like the cycle had finally completed, and my uncle’s memory had been really honored. This recognition will help me continue to unite Jews and Muslims, so our country will strengthen and continue towards peace.”

Unity Day International

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the Unity Day celebration was that it was not only in Israel—Jews around the world, in over 25 countries, came together to celebrate the equally global unity of last summer. JJ Sussman, the head of Unity Day International, was very impressed with how the celebrations had turned out:

“The event is incredible, especially since it started after the tragedy last summer. The families, Nir Barkat and Gesher were able to take something incredibly positive from a tragedy and bring it to the entire Jewish nation, to spread the word that unity is an important ideal.

“Jews around the world, everywhere from China to Finland, South Africa to North America, are together celebrating Unity Day, remembering how we came together last year, and are staying together, getting to know one another even if we don’t agree about everything.”

Linda Mirels, the chairwoman of UJA-Federation New York, spoke of how her organization had worked tirelessly in the weeks preceding Unity Day to raise awareness for the Jerusalem Unity Prize and to help create events in the Diaspora. “We’re very pleased with the result,” Mirels said. “There are hundreds of Jews celebrating Unity Day in the New York area, and even more in Europe and around the world. It’s incredible how much unity came from our ordeal last year, and is continuing to keep us together.”

Ofir She’ar, father of Gil’ad, was very moved at the incredible response of the Jews of the Diaspora to the outreach of Unity Day International:

“We are all one nation. Even to those who aren’t here (in Israel), there is a strong connection, and there are challenges for Jews in Israel and also in the Diaspora. Different types of challenges, but still challenges. Today, we’ve been reminded of the tools we need to deal with these challenges and succeed.”

Now, What?

With the incredible concord of Unity Day behind us, we must now look forward and think about how to bring this national achdut into our day-to-day lives.

Dov Lipman, an American oleh and former MK for the Yesh Atid party, emphasized the importance of reliving Unity Day every day. “Unity shouldn’t just be during the hard times—we have to find a way to keep it going throughout the year. That’s our challenge and hopefully today can be the start of people throughout Israel fully understanding that.”

“The event we’ve created today is remembering a time last year when everyone prayed together,” said Dov Kolmonovitz, the Assistant Mayor of Jerusalem. Referring to when he was seriously injured and burned by a Molotov cocktail during the First Intifada in 1988, Kolmonovitz said, “When I was hurt, everyone prayed for me—Jews of all levels of religiosity. But, when the boys were kidnapped, we saw a unity that no other nation in the world has ever seen. What happened here last year is something that we need to bring with us every day of our lives, because only the Jewish people can accomplish it.”

“We’ll wake up tomorrow morning, and we’ll try to take the spirit of these days and try to elevate our lives, making them different than they are,” Avi Frankel said. “We’re not going to change the world overnight, not going to take a big step forward, but if everyone takes baby steps and gets better in their relationships with fellow Jews, then this would be an incredible legacy.”

Mayor Nir Barkat concluded his Unity Day remarks by turning to the families of the three boys whose tragic murders had brought so much unity into the world, and said: “I’m happy we succeeded at this task. I hope this standing will be successful in memorializing your beloved sons Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, and will be a source of comfort for your families.”

By Tzvi Silver, JLNJ Israel Correspondent

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