May 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Three Boys and the War—One Year Later

It was about a year ago when we all came together. One year ago, three Israeli teenagers—Naftali, Gilead and Eyal—were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank. At the time, we didn’t know their fate; we all thought they could be rescued. A massive, international campaign began, centering on the message, “Bring Back Our Boys.”

I remember being a part of a rally for their release in downtown Manhattan that occurred during final exams. It was worth sacrificing study time to be there—it was a beautiful event. Distinguished leaders such as Rabbi Michael Miller, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council, spoke about how important it was that we all come together and lobby and pray for the release of the boys. There were people in attendance from all over the city and beyond. And suddenly there was this pervading sense of hope—the situation was dire, but we as a people could all come together, and our combined efforts of praying, lobbying and raising awareness would help return Naftali, Gilead and Eyal home.

But things took a far darker turn. Similar to how many adults feel about JFK’s assassination or 9/11, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard about the truth. I was interning (also in Manhattan) and was taking a brief Facebook break from my job of working on a database. One of my friends had either liked or shared a post from an Israeli singer that simply said, Nora… (terrible…). At first I didn’t understand what it meant. Then I checked the comments. Someone had asked what was going on, and someone else wrote something along the lines of, Hem matz’u et ha’chotfim… (They found the kidnapped…)

The blood rushed to my face and my heart turned to ice. It was then that I knew.

There were rallies and get-togethers and shows of solidarity all around the world that day. I was informed of a rally somewhere nearby in Manhattan that afternoon that I could go to after my workday ended. But I was far too drained and upset to want to go. I took the bus home, came into my house, went up to my parents’ room and collapsed into my mom’s arms, crying.

We had created so much hope and optimism surrounding the boys. We were going to find them! The IDF, the world’s most skilled army, was knocking on doors and searching dreadful areas, and they’d turn up any day now. Yet it turned out that our hope had been false. They had been lost from the very beginning, and our unity had seemingly been for naught.

Yet unity was what kept us all together, kept us all going forward.

As you likely remember, the kidnapping and murder led to the beginning of the IDF’s fateful military operation in Gaza, Protective Edge. The operation may have hurt Israel in the realm of general public opinion (something that I feel it will never have a good chance of taming anyway), but also probably saved thousands of lives by allowing the IDF to discover and destroy the terror tunnels before it was too late. However, it created a tense and nerve-wracking, and at points very mournful, summer for Jews around the world, myself included. I mean, about half of my friends seemed to be in Israel on some program or another (Mach Hach, Sulam and so on). Basically, they were in a country at war, going to places that could be targeted by rockets at any moment!

So now there were two terrible, fateful elements at play—the murder of the three boys and the military operation. It wouldn’t be surprising if the stress, sorrow and strain of both caused the Jewish people to split apart after their show of unity. Our hopes had been dashed and we faced a future more uncertain than before; personally I would understand if people found it hard to come together while worrying so much about what had happened and could happen.

But the opposite occurred. The Jewish people came together. I attended another rally later in the summer, in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, and it was absolutely packed—probably more crowded than some Madison Square Garden concerts. (It was an excellent place to play “Jewish Geography” and feel that you recognized 50 or so of the people there.) People were holding signs that said that they stood with Israel, speakers such as representatives from Congress extolled the virtues of our homeland and there was a sense of verve and excitement that is hard to describe. No one wanted that rally, of course; no one had wanted the kidnappings or the war in Gaza. But at the very least, we all were using it as an impetus to come together, to pray, to advocate—to truly be a cohesive Jewish people.

The parents of the boys have said that the sense of unity that came from the tragedy is the most important takeaway from all that occurred, and I agree. It’s so easy nowadays to see the Jewish people as broken and scattered, not just geographically but also ideologically. There are the religious and the nonreligious, the affiliated and the nonaffiliated and so on. There are countless disagreements each year between different sects and different groups and shuls and so on. Often it feels as if the Jews are not a true whole but rather a splintered group of shards. Of course this is the case with all nationalities (how many forms of Christianity are there?), but given the constant anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric that goes on in the world, it feels particularly pronounced when it comes to the Jews. (Whether anti-Israel rhetoric is a form of anti-Semitism is an important question, but beyond the scope of this article.) Through the tragedies and trials we experienced, we came together to pray, to lobby and to give our nation a voice. Around the world, Jews of every background and affiliation voiced support for Israel and for the parents of the boys, and we all managed to get through the challenging summer together.

That’s what strikes me the most about the whole thing, even a year later, and I hope that sense of unity doesn’t go away.

Oren Oppenheim, age 17, is a junior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist, but currently is drowning in emails from colleges. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at facebook.com/orenphotography.

By Oren Oppenheim

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