By Max Fruchter
With its vast walkway and abundance of chambers that welcome prominent leaders from across the globe, the president’s residence serves as a central point of nationalism and unity in Israel. Government announcements and public briefings of all sorts are often broadcast from the heart of Jerusalem’s leadership, Beit HaNasi. It is only fitting, then, that any message concerning Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad, whose tragic murders this past summer unified the entirety of Israel, along with Jews everywhere in the world, be delivered from the home of President Reuven Rivlin.
An hour before the disclosure of a historic new initiative, I entered the president’s home and marveled at its gorgeous expanse. Greenery of all types surrounded the buildings. I made my way past the aesthetics and focused on the fact that I was shortly going to experience a behind-the-scenes encounter with several prominent and inspirational national figures.
As I stepped foot into the pressroom, I thought about the initiative for which we had gathered that day. The world witnessed an unparalleled degree of unification throughout Israel in the wake of the murders of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad. Disagreements and disputes were put aside as kindness, compassion, and support came to the fore. Yet after the shock of such a tragedy wears off, there is a decline in the intensity and fervor of these qualities. For this reason, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and the three families of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad decided to create an initiative that would foster a sense of positivity and national unity similar to that which echoed throughout the world following the senseless tragedy this past summer. Beginning this year, the Jerusalem Unity Prize will accept entries from anyone in Israel or America who furthers Jewish unity through some project, idea, or initiative.
In essence, the Jerusalem Unity Prize is a joint effort geared towards promoting solidarity and unification. On June 3, the anniversary of the funerals for the three boys, a special committee composed of the three mothers, the mayor, and several other dignitaries will vote on a winner for each of three categories: Individuals or Organizations, Social Initiatives, and Israel and the Diaspora. Prizes of up to NIS 100,000 will be awarded to winners in each category and announced at the president’s home on what will be marked as Unity Day.
Before the official unveiling of this momentous initiative, I was privileged to speak with the mothers of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad. Their composure caught me off guard and reminded me of the fact that a strong media focus has not diminished their human qualities. I first spoke with Mrs. Frenkel, Naftali’s mother, whose smile and aura of strength exhibited hope and pride. Before I even inquired about the Jerusalem Unity Prize initiative, Mrs. Frenkel asked me to tell her a little bit about myself. With a large media presence awaiting her, this was not the interaction I had imagined. She embodied true maternal qualities of patience and concern. Mrs. Frenkel and I discussed the recent levayah of the four Paris terror victims and how such a tragedy serves as a similar call for nationwide strength and solidarity.
As our conversation developed, she shared a brief incident that transpired during her son’s funeral. She overheard someone mention the old Jewish joke of two Jews in a room, but three opinions. Mrs. Frenkel expressed that where there are two Jews and three opinions, there is only one heart. She explained that while this quip may simply serve to lighten a somber mood, it nonetheless emphasized an idea that grew increasingly larger in her mind—Jews across Israel and the world are one, and must act as one.
As our discussion shifted to the Jerusalem Unity Prize, Mrs. Frenkel described what she sought to achieve through this initiative. “The initiative is about unity, not uniformity,” she elaborated. Further inquiry revealed her hope to reward current social groups and individuals that promote Jewish unity while simultaneously encouraging the inception of new ideas and projects.
After speaking with Mrs. Frenkel, I introduced myself to Eyal’s and Gilad’s mothers and expressed appreciation and excitement for the creation of this phenomenal project. The brevity with which the two mothers spoke indicated a preference to engage in a short discussion, so I briefly asked how they felt about the Jerusalem Unity Prize. In short Hebrew sentences resounding with love, they related a hope to honor their sons’ memories and foster positivity across the country.
In the pressroom, rapid clicks and shutter noises reverberated as the assembled members of the media focused on President Reuven Rivlin, Mayor Nir Barkat, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Grossman, and the three families. I listened attentively to the words of each and snapped several photographs myself. Yet I witnessed what seemed to me, as a newly initiated member of the press corps, an inappropriate lack of consideration. In addition to sticking cameras in the faces of the three families, reporters expressed irritation and impatience at what they interpreted as a lack of cooperation for an ideal photo-op. When Rabbi Grossman was slightly cut off from view during the picture setup, they brazenly demanded that everyone immediately reposition themselves. Once the official press conference ended and we all stepped out of the room, I overheard the photographers and reporters criticize the president’s spokesperson. Rather than offer some helpful advice or respectful critique, they expressed disdain at the way the president supposedly covered his mouth too much and lost eye contact too often during his speech.
While some of the press dispersed after the official event, I waited for a chance to meet with the mayor and chief rabbi. Once Mayor Barkat had a free moment, I shook his hand and introduced myself. I asked him why he thought the Jerusalem Unity Prize was the ideal initiative to promote unity. He answered that while other forms of incentivizing people in Israel and America were considered, this prize offered the most feasible means of encouraging people to stand with their fellow Jews. In addition, he explained how the three categories of Jerusalem Unity Prize winners described in the press release are only the initial prize divisions; in future years, there will hopefully be an expansion of potential awardees.
After thanking Mayor Barkat for his time, I lingered, making conversation with some of the other reporters. At an opportune time, I tactfully made my way to Chief Rabbi Grossman. His gentle smile and embrace exhibited both professionalism and kindness. The chief rabbi began by saying, “Today is a special day for Israel.” He continued along these lines and conveyed excitement about the prospects for the success of the Jerusalem Unity Prize initiative. Unquestionably, honoring the memory of these three boys was the focal point of the chief rabbi’s words. He ended our discussion with a quote he felt was fitting for this particular event—“Barcheinu Avinu kulanu k’echad” (Bless us, our Father, because we are one). The lilt in his voice placed a strong emphasis on the word “k’echad” and compressed the idea of this initiative into a single phrase.
As the press conference came to an end, I took one last glance at my surroundings. Beit HaNasi is a magnificent estate that symbolizes so many of the fundamental ideals of a Jew. Thanking everyone who had offered their time and effort, I exited through the security enclosure and began to replay the past two hours in my mind. The Jerusalem Unity Prize will be an absolute success in my view, since it provides a way to actualize a shared desire of all Jews to spread unity. As the year progresses, I know this joint initiative will succeed in promoting solidarity amongst Jews and, in so doing, honor the memories of Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Sha’ar.
Max Fruchter is a graduate of DRS Yeshiva High School and wrote last year’s “Year in Israel” series for the Five Towns Jewish Times.