The shofar was blown in one suburban Philadelphia synagogue last Friday night to celebrate an answered prayer — the release by Iran of the two American hikers, one of whom, Josh Fattal, had actually become a bar mitzvah in their rabbi’s former synagogue.
“People were in tears,” Rabbi Elliot Holin, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, told The Jewish Week. “It was a highly emotional moment.”
“We had been channeling our hope and prayers for so long,” he said, noting that each week for the past 26 months he had recited the captives’ names aloud during the prayer for healing.
“At first we included the names of all three,” Rabbi Holin said, referring to their female companion, Sarah Shourd, who was released last year on $500,000 bail. “Then it was just the two of them.”
Although the Fattal family is not a member of his present congregation — they are not currently affiliated with any synagogue — Rabbi Holin said some of his congregants know the family and that he called them early last year.
“I spoke with Josh’s mother,” he said. “She knew me, and I said my heart is with you and that on behalf of the synagogue we were extending our support. She was very gracious.”
Although it was “well known” in Elkins Park that the Fattal family is Jewish, according to resident Judy Chant, members of the organized Jewish community said the Fattal family did not wish to publicize it while their son was held captive in Iran. As a result, members of the news media who were aware of it deliberately omitted any reference to it.
Adam Kessler, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Philadelphia, said, “We were asked not to be involved. … We were here to do what we could, but they did not want to make it a Jewish communal thing.”
And when Fattal’s father, Jacob, delivered a lecture at a local synagogue, Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El, in which he described being born in Iraq and escaping to Israel before coming to the United States, he made no mention of his son’s captivity, according to Joan Theil, who attended the address.
Fattal’s father, according to JTA, emigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951, and after serving in the Israeli army moved to the United States. Jacob Fattal’s siblings still live in Israel.
Fattal and Shane Bauer were freed by Iran last week on $1 million bail after being sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage and trespassing. They flew directly to Oman, where they spent three days relaxing with their families before arriving in New York Sunday.
Although Fattal, 29, had his bar mitzvah at the now-closed Elkins Park campus of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, it wasn’t until recently that people at the congregation’s downtown Philadelphia synagogue became aware of it.
“The first we heard of it was just a few weeks ago when some said he might have become a bar mitzvah here,” said Carol Perloff, the bulletin editor. n