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First Person American Rabbi Visits Shares Pain of Kidnapped Israeli Soldier’s Family

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Aviva Shalit’s eyes look sad and sunken, but they still retain a glimmer of hope that somehow a miracle will occur. Aviva is the mother of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the 19-year-old Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas terrorists on June 25. Gilad has not been seen or heard from since.

Aviva and her husband Noam are hunkered down in their home in Mitzpe Hila in the upper Galilee. The only way to Hila is through an Arab village. If only Israel’s relationship with Palestinian Arabs were as civil as Mitzpe Hila’s ties with her Israeli-Arab neighbors.

I had gone to visit the Shalit family together with my good friend and fellow New Yorker, Jeff Markowitz. Jeff had flown to Israel to express solidarity and try to bring comfort to the Shalits, as well as the families of the soldiers killed and wounded in the attack in which Gilad was kidnapped.

A successful businessman, Jeff has spearheaded a program that has brought dozens of Americans to Israel to experience an Israeli Defense Forces boot camp. The Americans pay a hefty sum to be ordered around by Israelis half their age, with the money funneled back to the army through the Friends of the IDF organization.

In the midst of her turmoil, Aviva was as cordial as possible to her American guests. Sitting around the table in her garden, she told us something about each of her children.

There was nothing extraordinary in the lives she described, just a normal Israeli family, where one child attends the Technion and another is still in high school. Who could have predicted that Gilad, who finished high school as an exceptional student before being drafted last year, would become a pawn in international politics?

What does one say to someone in this impossible situation? Only words that come from the heart. We tried to impart the message that we had come from the United States to let the family know we care, that they are not alone, that our people are united. We told her how American Jewry is united in prayer and resolve for Gilad.

As we sat together, there were periods of deep silence, silence that had its own power. It was as if we acknowledged that although we had never met before, we are together and our concern transcends words.

Still, Aviva appeared exhausted and drained by the excruciating wait for any scrap of positive news. She knows that Hamas cares little about life. While Israel does all it can to spare civilians, the terrorists prey on the innocent.

Just a few days earlier, I attended the funeral of 17-year-old Eliyahu Pinchas Asheri. The wailing of his teenage friends and siblings at the funeral was almost unbearable.

Eliyahu was kidnapped while trying to catch a ride near Jerusalem. Within hours, he was taken to a garbage dump in Ramallah and shot in the head. Israelis today are tense, wondering whether abduction is the next tactic of evil to be triggered by the enemy.

Most of all, Aviva looked uncertain — uncertain whether Gilad will be able to handle what awaits him, uncertain as to how long the ordeal can go on.

She has good reason to feel that way. After all, airman Ron Arad’s family still doesn’t know his fate 20 years after his capture. And Miriam Baumel, mother of Zachary, one of the Israeli soldiers taken prisoner in the 1982 Lebanon war, is still in limbo almost 25 years later. Miriam Baumel once told me that she would prefer knowing that her son is dead, rather than continuing to live with the unknown.

Gilad’s father, Noam, had been sitting in the living room talking on the phone while we spoke with Aviva. When the opportunity arose I approached him.

Noam seemed more animated and in control than Aviva. He expressed to us what many have said — that the address to free Gilad is Damascus. President Bashar Assad allows the Hamas leadership free rein there and has it in his power to issue the order to set Gilad free.

The Syria Accountability Act, authored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), passed both houses of Congress and calls for sanctions against Syria if it fails to stop supporting terrorism. Unfortunately, President Bush has yet to fully impose these sanctions.

The Shalit house was full of caring family and friends. However, I was surprised to learn that no official American representative had been there. Although the Shalits aren’t American citizens, it seemed to me that the United States, which is fighting a similar war against terrorism, should have sent its ambassador to offer support.

As we left, the Israeli army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, arrived. In parting, a family member said to me, “Our message to the Jewish community in America is simple: Israel should not resolve its political problems on Gilad’s back.”

Therein lies the dilemma. For the Shalit family, the top agenda item naturally is Gilad’s freedom. Of course, Israel cares deeply about the fate of every soldier, but the overriding concern is that buying Gilad’s freedom by releasing jailed Palestinians would just encourage more kidnappings.

Indeed, as united as Israel is about Gilad’s welfare, it is politically divided: The right believes the army should be far more aggressive, while the left believes the army has gone too far.

As a soldier of Israel, Gilad was defending not just Israel but Jews everywhere. He was kidnapped because he was a soldier defending the Jewish state and a warrior against terrorism, not because he was Gilad Shalit. As such, every Jew should feel personally violated.

We must come together and do more to express our solidarity in concrete ways. Perhaps, as Esther Wachsman suggested when her son Nachshon was kidnapped in 1994, everyone around the world should light an extra Shabbat candle.

Children in summer camps should hear of Gilad’s plight. The American government should receive millions of letters requesting their intervention. Vigils should be held in front of Israel’s embassy in Washington and protests should be held outside the Syrian consulate.

Sitting near Aviva, I reached out and said haltingly, “Let’s try not to lose faith.” I invited the whole family, including Gilad, to celebrate his freedom with our community in New York.

A weak smile crossed Aviva’s face. As we left we offered the prayer, “May it only come to pass.”

Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and president of Amcha — The Coalition for Jewish Concerns.

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