This time around, maybe the prayers worked.
Just ask the thousands of students in 85 Jewish day schools throughout North America who on Oct. 5 prayed in unison on a video conference for the release of Gilad Shalit — just hours before a secret deal for his release was signed.
“These were prayers for Gilad Shalit — to ask God to do something in heaven above for his release,” said Rabbi Joel Cohn, organizer of the mass prayer service.
Rabbi Cohn, a former principal of SAR Academy in Riverdale, said the students who participated represented all the different streams of Judaism.
Prayers were interspersed with remarks by Shalit’s father, Noam, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth.
Rabbi Cohn said the service had three goals: to give strength to the family, to intercede with heaven in Shalit’s behalf and to “create a congregation of students who know this is real Jewish unity with Jews of all stripes coming together.”
“Little did we know that the next morning an agreement for his release would be initialed,” Rabbi Cohn said. “Someone said it is unbelievable. I said no, we believe in the strength of prayer.”
For the excruciatingly long five years of Shalit’s imprisonment at the hands of Hamas, prayers were just one of the methods used to keep the staff sergeant’s fate uppermost in the minds of Americans. To be sure, his story often faded from the headlines as more pressing matters — the Turkish flotilla, a terrorist bombing at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ UN statehood bid — took center stage. But a small army of people kept the Shalit flame flickering over the years, motivated by the motto, “Never Forget.”
His picture was carried each year in the Celebrate Israel Parade — his father was an honorary grand marshal in 2010 — and there were campaigns asking people to write e-mail messages to him that were then given to the International Red Cross in the hope they would get to Shalit. Both the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations conducted such campaigns.
To encourage people to send those greetings, the Presidents Conference promoted the campaign using an electronic billboard in Time Square. Many of those greetings were presented to Shalit’s father during his recent visit here. While here, the New York City Council gave Noam Shalit a proclamation declaring it Gilad Shalit Day in the city.
“Now we’re asking people to sign onto a greeting welcoming Shalit home to Israel,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman.
The electronic greeting can be accessed at GiladGreetings.org.
In addition, the Presidents Conference last year staged a True Freedom Flotilla that began on the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan and sailed to the United Nations and back calling on the UN to intercede in Shalit’s behalf.
“We were constantly asked for interventions for Shalit’s release in meetings with different countries including Arab nations, and we hosted his father many times in Israel and in the United States,” Hoenlein said.
Shortly after Shalit’s capture in June 2006, the JCRC held a rally for Shalit outside the United Nations, attracting thousands of people.
Shortly thereafter Gilad Shalit dog tags were distributed.
Judith Shapiro of Brooklyn told The Jewish Week she wore hers every day.
“I came out of the Soviet Jewry movement and I used to wear a bracelet bearing the name of Natan Sharansky,” she said, referring to Anatoly Sharansky, a former Soviet prisoner of conscience who is now head of the Jewish Agency of Israel.
“I proudly wear Shalit’s dog tags around my neck so that people can ask me questions and I can discuss the issue of his captivity,” she said. “I don’t plan to take it off until we have information about the other five missing Israeli soldiers, some of whom have been missing almost 30 years.”
Last summer the JCRC presented the Shalit family with a book containing 12,000 e-mail messages from people around the world.
Before each High Holy Day, the JCRC sent reminders to rabbis asking that they include mention of Shalit in their holiday sermons. And earlier this year, it helped to arrange for a local screening of the film, “A Family in Captivity,” a documentary about the Shalit family.
Not to be forgotten amid the tumult over Shalit’s release Tuesday is the fact that thousands of students in Jewish day schools have kept a daily prayer vigil in his behalf. Rabbi Martin Schloss, director of day schools for the Jewish Education Project in New York, pointed out that students in “a good number” of Jewish day schools here have regularly offered prayers for Shalit’s release.
“There has been tremendous interest and involvement on his behalf,” Rabbi Schloss said. “It has been ubiquitous. He has been on their minds and in their hearts throughout” his more than five years of captivity.
Among the schools offering daily prayers for Shalit’s release was the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County in Jericho. Lizet Romano, a fifth-grade teacher, said the prayers started four years ago at the daily morning assembly. The fifth graders led the prayers.
“They would read a prayer and count the days of his captivity,” she said.
In addition, Romano said the fifth graders wrote letters to U.S. officials and the International Red Cross asking for their help in winning his freedom.
Late last year, each member of the fifth grade wrote an original prayer for Shalit’s release on a quilt. Anna Solasz, 11, of Roslyn, L.I., said she wrote, “There are people who love you.”
“Imagine if your brother was taken, what would you feel like,” she said. “It was horrible he was taken. He was just trying to save Israel and wasn’t doing anything bad; it’s just not fair that they took him. … It was a life-changing experience for everyone involved.”
Jared Harbour, 11, of Roslyn, L.I., said he is now concerned that terrorists will attempt to “capture more Israelis so they could get more of their captives released” from Israeli prisons.
Harbour, who said he suggested that the class make the quilt for the Shalit family, wrote on the quilt in Hebrew, “Protect him.”
The head of school, Cindy Dolgin, presented it to Shalit’s mother, Aviva, last February while Mrs. Shalit was sitting vigil in a tent outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.
“When I gave it to her, she said, ‘What in the world do I need a blanket for? I need my son back,’” Dolgin recalled. “It was very heartbreaking. I explained that the children had written prayers on it and signed it and that we had ironed on a picture of Gilad.”
After opening the blanket and posing for a picture, Shalit folded it back up and put it aside. Dolgin, who was visiting the tent along with other visitors and a TV crew that was interviewing Noam Shalit, then left.
A few minutes later, after the TV crew and the other visitors had left, Dolgin said she returned to the tent and peeked in.
“I saw her sitting there with the quilt on her lap and she and her husband were taking turns reading each prayer,” Dolgin said. “That was when I knew that our children had really done something special — we had not brought her son back but we had brought a smile to her face. If for five minutes it brought them comfort, it was worth all the work and initiative.”