It has been a difficult and tense week in Israel. We awoke a week ago, Sunday, to discover the horrible news that Gilad, a 20 year-old soldier in the IDF, had been taken hostage by Palestinian militants. Along with his capture, the terrorists also killed two other chayalim (soldiers).
By Tuesday morning the Israeli government had done little more than entertain diplomatic options and amass tanks along the border with Gaza. That same morning, I attended a briefing at a Jerusalem think-tank, where I work part-time. The former head of the Mossad, Epraim Halevy, spoke with foreign diplomats, press and researchers from the think-tank.
Halevy described the kidnapping of Gilad as "the fatal moment, the moment of truth" for Hamas. This, he claimed, is the moment for the Hamas leadership to prove their mettle, to prove that they are competent and capable of governing the Palestinian people. And the manner in which they handle the crisis will determine the future of Hamas as a governing body.
He viewed this "moment" as a contest between Mashal, the head of the military wing of Hamas, based in Damascus, and the "civil" wing of Hamas. The ex-Mossad head predicted that we would see where Hamas is headed within two days. I sit typing this post nearly a week after Halevy's briefing. It seems abundantly clear that Hamas has failed to "create a structure of command, control and viable governance," the challenge Halevy outlined in the briefing. Gilad remains in the hands of the terrorists and we continue to pray for his well-being.
Amidst the horror of Gilad's kidnapping, the country was informed that Eliyahu, an 18 year-old boy from Itamar was also kidnapped. For some reason, Eliyahu's kidnapping did not generate the same publicity and media attention as Gilad's. Perhaps because Eliyahu was from the "shtachim," the settlements. However, Eliyahu was kidnapped while hitchiking from French Hill, a neighborhood in Jerusalem.
On Thursday, it was revealed that Eliyahu had been killed immediately after he was kidnapped (on Sunday). One of the murderers, who was arrested by the Israeli government in an effort to crack down on the Hamas leadership, led the police to Eliyahu's body on a hilltop near Ramallah.
I attended Eliyahu's funeral in Jerusalem. Needless to say, the scene was heart-breaking. I stood in the blazing sun with several thousand Israelis. We listened to the hespedim (eulogies) over loud-speakers. A number of rabbis and local Itamar politicians eulogized Eliyahu. Although it was difficult to hear and decipher the speeches, the sobs and wails of Eliyahu's four younger siblings and parents were a distinct undertone throughout.
The sound of the continuous wail of the family members will always remain with me. The sickening sound of a young girl sobbing, wailing over her 18 year old brother's casket was haunting, eerie and unnatural.
Both Eliyahu's mother and father gave eulogies. Eliyahu's "adopted" grandfather, Rav Druckman also spoke about his son. One common theme that all of the speakers touched upon was Eliyahu's biblical namesake, Elijah the Prophet and his ability to intercede on behalf of the people of Israel. Eliyahu's mother beseeched him: "Eliyahu, please pray to God on our behalf."
Today I joined a group of several people who desired to pay a shiva call to the Osheri family. We traveled on a bullet-proof bus to the town of Itamar. As we left Jerusalem behind us, I was struck, as I always am, by the beautiful vast expanse of land, mountains and hills that is the "west bank." Only fifteen minutes outside of the bustling city center of Jerusalem, the serenity of the stunning landscape is striking.
We passed Beit El, Eli, Shilo, Ofra and many other charming and vibrant towns as we headed toward Itamar. When I got off the bus in Itamar I took several pictures. Although Nablus is only 3 kilometers from Itamar, I immediately did a 360 and realized I could see no other village or town in any direction.
As we approached the Osheri house, we discovered the family sitting shiva in the yard outside. Apparently, the home was too small to contain the large numbers of friends, families, and strangers like myself. I joined the group surrounding Eliyahu's parents. I sat toward the back of the circle and listened and watched the bereaved mother and father. I glalnced behind me and saw a girl, Eliyahu's sister, the source of the horrifying wails at the funeral, who looked like she couldn't be more than ten or eleven, surrounded by a circle of her peers.
The woman sitting next to me reminded me that the town of Itamar (which is populated by around 100 families) has seen its share of tragedies. In the past five years, fourteen members of the community have been murdered in terrorist attacks. I cringed at the thought. And then the woman told me that one of those fourteen had been a dear friend of Eliyahu's. (please see the following link to the unspeakable tragedy of the shabo family from itamar: http://www.shechem.org/itamar/eshabo.html). I later found out from Eliyahu's father that Eliyahu would have been at his friend's house that night, but had rushed home immediately after the night's activities at his father's instruction.
After sitting with the parents for a little while, I joined a group of three journalists who interviewed Eliyahu's father. The father agreed to speak with the press, for what ended up lasting about an hour. Mr. Osheri spoke of his son's development in the years leading up to his murder last week.
Apparently, Eliyahu was not much of a student in high school. He was not interested in the material being taught. Once he entered a "pre-military" mechina program, however, Eliyahu seemed to turn over a new leaf. His spiritual development progressed very quickly. As his mother had told us earlier, he asked penetrating, thoughtful and deep questions about belief and Judaism. He thrived at his yeshiva.
Mr. Osheri shared with us that Eliyahu's mother had given voice to concern several months back regarding Eliyahu's spiritual growth. His mother worried:"He's so close to the Almighty now, I'm afraid the Almighty will take him." (How unfortunately prophetic her words were). I was told that when Eliyahu prayed the mincha, afternoon service, it was like watching someone pray the Yom Kippur service.
Eliyahu's father's words left an indelible imprint on me. I kept returning to the picture of Eliyahu smiling, emanating "chein," goodness and a deep spirituality.
After discussing Eliyahu for a while, the questions veered toward Mr. Osheri's own spiritual journey. He shared with us his own path to Judaism. As a non-Jewish child in Australia, he told us, he knew at the age of ten that Catholicism was not for him. He studied East Asian religions in college and found them engaging only on a cursory level. When he lived in New Guinea for two years, he met an architect whose wife happened to be Israeli. This woman encouraged Mr. Osheri to visit and spend time in Israel.
He did. He spent a year living on a non-religious kibbutz. Mr. Osheri explained that it was on that kibbutz that he sensed something special, unique about the Jewish people. The kibbutznikim possessed some sort of intangible spiritual, ethical quality. He asked them the source of that spark. Someone handed Mr. Osheri a pamphlet of "pirkei avot," "ethics of our fathers." Reading Pirkei Avot, for him, was like discovering a canteen of water in the middle of the desert. Subsequent to his stint on kibbutz, Mr. Osheri returned to Australia where he studied and learned for a year, culminating in his conversion to Judaism.
I was amazed at the quiet, humble and methodical manner in which Mr. Osheri shared such a personal and unbelievable story. Toward the end of the conversation, the ha'aretz journalist asked him how he would respond to people who think that he should not be living in Itamar. Eliyahu's father softly, yet firmly, answered: "I would tell them to open the Bible and read very closely and discover that G-d gave this Land to only one people, the Jewish people."
On the bus ride back to Jerusalem, I thought about Eliyahu, his parents and his siblings. His parents, such salt-of-the-earth, gentle, spiritual people grieving over the loss of a son. I thought about the people of Itamar, their beautiful town, their idealism. I thought about the little children who were playing in their "gan," schoolyard when I walked through the town. I thought about Mr. Osheri, his spiritual journey and his son Eliyahu, and his own spiritual journey. I thought about Mrs. Osheri, who could not release my hand from hers when I blessed her upon my departure that G-d should comfort her.
These sights are difficult to understand and accept. I am left without words. Only with prayer. For Gilad. For the Osheri family. For the Jewish people. For the State of Israel.
(the picture at the top of the post is Eliyahu Asheri, Hashem Yikom Damo)