Discussing the concept of Jewish unity, the idea behind a new prize in memory of her son and two others murdered in Israel last June, Racheli Fraenkel acknowledged that the term sounds like a cliché at times.
But in a panel discussion last week before a local, Jewishly diverse audience, Fraenkel spoke of Jewish unity as if it was something tangible, a substance she could hold and feel.
“I’m not a politician,” Fraenkel told The Jewish Week after the discussion. “I’m here as Naftali’s mother. We felt something outstanding [last June] and wanted to further it. People were amazing. They went out of their way to care, to connect and to comfort” the three families.
Fraenkel acknowledged that “there are no easy solutions” to the issues on which many Jews are divided. “But,” she said, “we can work on them if we’re intent on our common goal — respecting our differences.”
The panel discussion took place during “An Evening of Jewish Unity” at UJA-Federation of New York, a key supporter of the newly established Jerusalem Unity Prize. Moderated by Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward, the discussion brought together three of the people who initiated the prize: Racheli Fraenkel, Naftali’s mother; Ofir Shaer, terrorism victim Gilad Shaer’s father; and Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem. Others who helped initiate the prize included the family of Eyal Yifrah, the third Israeli teen who went missing for 18 days and was later found dead, and leaders of Gesher, an Israeli group devoted to bridging the differences among Jews.
“It all began with the shiva,” Shaer told The Jewish Week, referring to the period of mourning that took place after the bodies were discovered. During the nearly three weeks leading to that discovery, as well as after that point, the families received gestures of support from Jews across religious and political lines, he explained. It was the mayor who, during shiva calls to each of the three families, noted that something “unique” was taking place and suggested a way to continue the spirit of Jewish unity.
The prize will actually consist of three awards, said Anat Schwarz Weil, director of the Jerusalem Unity Prize, who’s working with the mayor, the families and Gesher to bring the idea to fruition. One will go an individual or organization working to promote “unity in the Jewish community over an extended period of time”; another to a social initiative that addresses “the challenge of disunity within the greater Jewish community”; and the third to an individual or group that has “advanced programs that strengthen the connection between Israel and diaspora Jewry.”
The prizes will be awarded on June 3, the day on which the Israeli public will observe the yahrzeit of the three teens, after a full-day conference on Jewish unity, said Yoni Sherizen, a Gesher director. Each prize will carry an award of 100,000 shekels, roughly $25,000.
The day will also include activities throughout Israel aimed at uniting disparate elements of the Jewish community, Sherizen said, adding that he and his colleagues are now hoping to make that day into a global event with the help of partners in other countries.
Echoing sentiments felt by all three of the families, Shaer told last week’s gathering that he and his wife decided they had “two options” as the search for the boys stretched on and as “the picture grew darker.”
“We could close ourselves off or we could open our home and open our hearts,” translating tragedy to something positive, he said. He and his wife chose the second option.
“We’re trying to create a new language” for the Jewish community, Shaer said at another point. “We can say we want unity, but not uniformity.”
“We really hope to keep the better part of the last summer,” Fraenkel said. “After this summer, I’m really convinced that [Jewish unity] is not an illusion. It’s really about who we are, and we’d really like to promote it.”
In addition to the parents, the evening included brief remarks from Eric S. Goldstein, UJA-Federation of New York’s CEO and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as an address by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain’s Orthodox community, a member of the British House of Lords and a member of the prize committee.
The Federation has been particularly supportive of the new prize, giving Gesher a grant of $500,000 over three years to create the awards, said David Mallach, managing director of Federation’s Commission on the Jewish People.
In words that appeared to resonate with the audience, Rabbi Sacks said there was “only one people on earth capable of destroying the Jewish people — the Jewish people.” More humorously, he said that Judaism was the only faith “all of whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments.”
But the rabbi also gave a succinct definition of unity, saying, “I don’t need you to agree with me. I need you to care about me.”
The evening’s only speaker who referred to the Israeli-Arab conflict, one of the issues that divides Jews, was Barkat, who said that “our enemies” believed “they could pull us apart” through terrorism. But the outpouring of support for the families empowered him, the prime minister and other Israeli leaders, giving them the “ability to face our enemies.”
Both Fraenkel and Shaer, meanwhile, acknowledged some of the challenges that stand in the way of Jewish unity. One is the rhetoric of Israel’s current election campaign, but both suggested that it was part of the Israeli firmament and they expected it to blow over once the campaign ends.
A member of the Jerusalem City Council, speaking by phone from Jerusalem, said that while she believes the prize is a positive step, she’s dismayed that it doesn’t promote unity among all Israelis, including Arab citizens.
“One of the disturbing things that’s happening in Israel is that there’s more and more of an emphasis on religious identity rather than national identity,” said Laura Wharton, one of two council members from the left-wing Meretz Party, “and I don’t think it’s healthy for Israelis. It only widens the abyss” between Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis, she said.
But Sherizen said the prize does honor Israeli unity and that Israel’s population consists mostly of Jews. He also said the prize committee would seriously consider any application for an award that “comes from someone outside the Jewish faith.”
Meanwhile, Yuli Tamir, a former cabinet minister from the Labor Party and a human-rights activist in Israel, said she asked about some of the same issues before she joined the prize committee.
“I hope and believe the projects that will be awarded won’t be for things that emphasize Jewish unity at the expense” of Arab-Jewish relations, she said. “I made this very clear to members of the board, and they were very comfortable with that.”
Tamir also said that both Jewish unity and Israeli unity are important.
“I think there’s enough room for both,” she said. “It’s not one or the other.”