Overflow crowd gathers to remember slain Israeli teens

Cantor Ron Eichaker of United Hebrew Congregation sings ‘Hatikvah’ at a memorial service for the three slain Israeli teens, held last Wednesday at the Jewish Community Center. Photos: Yana Hotter 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Set to prayers and the mournful strains of a cello, the Jewish community remembered three slain Israeli teenagers in a standing-room only event that packed the banquet center at the Jewish Community Center last Wednesday, July 2.

“We grieve at potential now gone to waste, dreams now gone unfulfilled,” Jewish Federation President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld told a crowd of hundreds, which had to line the walls of the room. “We come together tonight as a community in sadness to remember those futures that never will be.”

The program honored Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach who were kidnapped and killed last month by Islamic militants. Their disappearance sparked worldwide concern, particularly among Jews who rallied on social media and elsewhere in hopes the young men would be located alive. Instead, their bodies were found June 30.

Interviewed just before the event, Jewish Community Relations Council executive director Batya Abramson-Goldstein said the gathering had to be put together quickly with word being spread by phone calls, email and social media. She said organizations were eager to partner and that people seemed grateful to be a part of it.

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“This is an opportunity for the community to come together, to grieve together, to remember the boys who were so tragically taken when their lives hadn’t fully begun and to find comfort by being together,” she said.

The gathering was a somber one marked by psalms, candle lighting and music from St. Louis Symphony members Melissa Brooks and Patti Wolf as well as Gesher Music Festival’s Sara Sitzer. Cantor Ron Eichaker of United Hebrew led the singing of Hatikvah.

Rabbis Elizabeth Hersh of Temple Emanuel and Ari Kaiman of Congregation B’nai Amoona each contributed a reading and Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion delivered a prayer for Israel.

In opening remarks, Rehfeld noted a declaration of remembrance and solidarity issued by Rep. William Lacy Clay and then noted the personal connection the mourners felt to young men who had been strangers to them just weeks ago.

“We gather today to honor their memory, the memory of three boys slain because of who they were,” he said. 

“We mourn their loss and share, however small, a portion of their family’s grief. We mourn as parents, as children. We mourn as Jews and as human beings.”

Rehfeld called the murders an assault on the Jewish people as a whole.

“These boys were murdered because they were Jewish, used by others to advance a political agenda meant to undermine the very integrity of the Jewish people’s project of self-determination,” he said. “We feel this loss personally because we are part of that collective body.”

He said that this tragedy, coming on the heels of anti-Semitic violence in the Kansas City area that left three dead in April, shows that the history of hatred against Jews still plagues the world. 

Rehfeld also noted that Jewish values consider the murder of all innocents abhorrent including that of a young Arab from East Jerusalem apparently killed in retaliation for the teens’ deaths.

“These principles also require us to speak clearly when injustice is committed in the name of those very values,” he said. “Even as we are here tonight to pay tribute to these three boys we must clearly condemn the brutal murder today of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Hussein Abu Khdeir in what appears to be a revenge killing. Each of us must not hesitate in condemning these kinds of actions when they occur nor shall we harbor any ambivalence about doing so.”

Federation Board chair Patty Croughan read from a eulogy delivered at Gilad’s funeral.

“Let us remember every second that we are burying a child,” she said. “Today, we are burying a child who could have been any one of ours and therefore he is one of ours – all of us.”

“Hate can never be pure,” she added. “Rage is not holy.”

Tali Stadler of the local Israeli House at B’nai Amoona recited bios of the young men. The oldest, Eyal, was recalled as a 19-year-old youth counselor who loved sports and travel. Gilad, 16, was remembered as a popular and charismatic amateur pastry chef who earned high praise for his baking skills. Naftali, also 16, held duel Israeli-American citizenship and enjoyed basketball and the guitar.

“While we did not know these three young students, their radiant faces are deeply etched in our thoughts and we are haunted by the loss of their potential,” JCRC president Phyllis Markus told the crowd.

Donn Rubin, chair of the JCRC’s Israel Committee expressed his condolences and urged others to do the same by signing a community letter to the bereaved families, which would be delivered via the Chicago consulate.

“We should redouble our efforts to support Israel and to tell her story,” Rubin said. “Let your voice be heard and let it be an informed voice.”

Attendee Mark Weinstein, 44, echoed that sentiment in an interview after the program. He said the gathering was important to show the values of the Jewish community and of Israel, an effort he thinks should be ongoing.

“Hopefully, it is the start of something that would continue,” said the Kol Rinah congregant. “That’s my hope.”

Standing outside the auditorium as participants streamed out, Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Southern Illinois/Missouri, said she thought the gathering had struck the right tone but was saddened that it had to do so in the face of trauma. She also worried about increasing tensions in the Middle East in the wake of the killings.

“I do wonder about the news cycle this week and what more learning and coming together we will have to do before this particular, terribly sad story is over,” she said.