For a brief moment Miriam Peretz, Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel and Sara Rosenfeld appeared to be happily reunited old friends. They were smiling and laughing, as if everything in their lives were happy and in order. Only their eyes, which had shed endless tears, hinted at their deep sorrow.
All three of these women have experienced the most excruciating pain possible, familiar to all women who have lost a child. Peretz lost her sons Uriel (22) and Eliraz (32) while they were serving in the IDF, Rosenfeld lost Yitzhaki (22) – a pilot who died in an accident, and Malachi (26), who was killed in a brutal shooting attack. Fraenkel lost her 16-year-old son Naftali, one of the three kidnapped teens from the summer of 2014.
Like phoenixes, these three courageous women have risen from the ashes of their despair.
Despite the fact that their beloved sons were plucked out of their arms, they have managed to navigate their way towards a new vitality to lift them up out of their anguish, out of the darkness and into the light.
As these bereaved mothers meet up at OneFamily
, an organization that supports victims of terror and their families, each one feels her own private grief, yet at the same time is empowered by the support she receives from the others.
Each has other children to raise, is cultivating an impressive career, cries, laughs and misses her loved ones – and yet somehow still finds time to talk about her values, faith and will to go on living despite the pain.
Peretz, Fraenkel and Rosenfeld all feel that motherhood is the most important aspect of their lives, and as a result, the loss of a child hit them so hard that it practically left them without the ability to breathe.
“The fact that I’ve suffered the loss of a child twice now is painful beyond words,” Rosenfeld says quietly. “I feel like I failed to keep my children safe.
Even though Yitzhaki and Malachi are far from me now, I am still their mother just like I’m the mother of my other children who are physically close to me.”
These feelings are not foreign to Peretz, a veteran educator and mother of six. When her firstborn was killed in Lebanon in 1998, she also felt like she’d failed to keep him safe.
“When I was told he’d been killed, I immediately began fantasizing that I was there at the time when his unit was ambushed and that I’d stepped in and been killed by the six roadside bombs instead of him. When I was told that Eliraz had been killed, I felt like everything had been taken away from me, including my status as a mother.”
Fraenkel, a mother of seven and director of the women’s Jewish studies institute Matan, talks about how painful it is to think about all the things she’ll be missing.
“I miss Naftali so much, and it pains me to think that he’ll never mature past 16, that he’ll never have the chance to get married and have a family.”
From where do you draw your resilience? Fraenkel: “Our large families are our mainstay. We chose to have large families, which has brought us great amounts of joy and endless blessings.”
The entry hall at OneFamily is full of activity. Young volunteers are bent over red plastic containers, wrapping sweets and other treats in transparent cellophane that rustles as they work.
These boxes will be sent to thousands of families who have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks.
Peretz recalls the moment at which she received the devastating news.
“When I saw the officers walking towards me, I yelled out, ‘Uriel!’, as if I could warn him about the impending danger,” Peretz recalls. “I felt his death inside my body. I wanted to turn back the clock so that I could jump out in front of him and absorb the blow that killed him, and thereby keep him safe.
Since that day, whenever I hear fireworks on Independence Day, I think I’m hearing bombs exploding. I had a very unusual request of the Engineering Corps soldiers – I asked them to blow up six roadside bombs so that I could feel what Uriel went through.”How did you react when IDF officials came to announce that Eliraz, your second son to fall, was killed in the Gaza Strip?
“I was completely crushed. By then I was already a bereaved mother and a widow. My husband, Eliezer, passed away after Uriel was killed, so I didn’t have anyone to lean on.”
Rosenfeld, the widowed mother of nine children, from Kochav Hashahar, can relate to that sense of missed opportunity.
“When Yitzhaki died, I accepted his death as a painful decree from heaven,” she says, her voice cracking. “My husband was sad that Yitzhaki hadn’t gotten married, but I just kept thinking how awful it would have been if he’d left orphans behind. When Malachi was killed, I said to God, ‘This time you’ve gone too far.’ I was very sad that we have nothing left of Malachi and Yitzhaki’s wonderful DNA.”
Fraenkel replies: “This question arose while I was conversing with Chana Henkin, the mother of Eitam and the mother- in-law of Naama who were murdered in the terrorist attack of October 2015. The pain orphans suffer is overwhelming, but on the other hand at least you have something left of your children.”
For 18 days after her son Naftali was kidnapped on the night of June 12, 2014, together with Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach, Fraenkel was hopeful that he would come home.
The boys’ parents vacillated between hope and despair until they received the bitter news that the three boys were murdered on the same day they were kidnapped. In an unusual and inspirational move, Fraenkel said kaddish over Naftali’s grave. “This isn’t a big deal in the world in which I live,” she says modestly. “There’s no halachic problem with women saying kaddish, it’s just not socially acceptable in some communities. It’s much more common outside Israel.”
Peretz interjects: “If my husband were to rise up from his grave, he would kill me if he heard me saying kaddish. It’s very innovative, but I guess it’s normal in Rachelle’s world.”
Rachelle, how did you survive all those days when you didn’t yet know what had happened to Naftali?
“We were very focused on bringing Naftali home. I told myself that I’d have time to let myself fall apart later. And then, after we found out, I felt like crawling under my blanket and staying there for six months, but my young son climbed up on my bed and tugged at my hair – he needed me. That brought me back to life. It’s very easy to paint everything black and white, but that wouldn’t be fair to the rest of my children, to my husband or to my community. I can feel sorrow, but I don’t need to let that sorrow define who I am. I can feel pain without letting it overcome me.”
Rosenfeld explains: “I have other children to take care of, and being a good mother means not just being there for our children who’ve died, but also for the children who remain.”
Rosenfeld was only six when she lost her mother during the birth of her only sister. As a result, she has striven to be the mother she always fantasized about when she was a child. After Yitzhaki’s death, she became pregnant with Avraham- Avia, and when her next child, Elyashiv, was born she was already a grandmother.
“After Yitzhaki died, I chose to keep on living,” Rosenfeld says. “Despite the abysmal pain that is constantly with me, I feel lucky. When Maoz was four, he asked me, ‘Mommy, isn’t it true that you’re both very sad and very happy at the same time? You’re happy because you love me, but you’re sad because Yitzhaki died and you miss him.’ What was the hardest moment for you after the shiva ended? Peretz says: “My husband was overcome with sadness and wouldn’t go to work, but I had no choice but to continue functioning because I had a daughter in third grade. It’s incredible how much strength it takes just to prepare a sandwich for your child to take with her to school. I had to be strong for her. A home that smells of good food is a home that’s alive.”
Fraenkel explains: “Naftali was kidnapped and murdered during the summer break and it was a relief that I didn’t have to go straight back to work. I just needed a few moments to catch my breath, because the waves of pain were choking me. Six months ago, my daughter Na’ama, who’s seven, asked me if I put on my makeup every day before I go to work so that I can cry silently on my way there. I nearly had a heart attack when she said that, but then I answered her that I don’t cry every day, but that I reserve the right to do so when I feel the need.”Miriam, how do you keep from breaking apart every morning
“My faith keeps me strong. I’ll never have an answer as to why Uriel and Eliraz were taken from me, but I’m happy to see Jewish boys and girls enjoying themselves on the beach and at the mall. And Eliraz’s four children are growing up happy. My boys did not die for nothing – if we did not go on living, what would have been the point of all this bloodshed?” Sara and Rachelle, do you feel the same, even though your boys were killed in terrorist attacks and not during their military service? Fraenkel: “In today’s reality, there is no difference between dying in a terrorist attack or on the battlefield. The battlefield is everywhere.”
Rosenfeld: “My situation is a little bit more complex because Yitzhaki was a pilot in the IDF, and he wasn’t killed in battle, but in an accident. At Remembrance Day ceremonies, I felt like hiding in the shadows when they would talk about the soldiers who sacrificed themselves. But every death is significant.”
Did your families or communities suffer a crisis of faith following the death of your loved ones?
Rosenfeld: “The only way I’ve been able to survive is by having faith. And even if when I die and go to heaven I find out that God was just something invented by psychologists, I’ll still feel happy that I was a believer. I don’t know how I would be able to live if I didn’t have faith. My mother, Yitzhaki and Malachi were all taken away from me suddenly. It’s as if I was lifted up really high and then knocked down hard to the ground.”Miriam, were you angry even for a second after Eliraz was killed?
“It’s like I’ve been dancing the tango with God all these years. We have this ongoing dialogue. On Yom Kippur the year after Eliraz was killed, I went to synagogue with his 3-year-old daughter, Shir Zion. Out of the blue, she asks me, ‘Where is my father?’ So I looked up towards the heavens and felt like screaming out, ‘What can I tell this little, innocent girl?’ Later, after we’d returned home, Shir Zion took a tumble down the stairs, but got right up unscathed, and I knew right then that this was the answer – God is right here watching over us. Nevertheless, every morning as I leave my house, I stop to kiss the mezuza, and ask God to have mercy on those of us who’ve survived, and to please not harm any more family members.”
Rosenfeld: “I don’t have the courage to say such things to God – I’m afraid that he’ll take another one of my family members.”
Rachelle, has your faith strengthened following your loss?
“Before Naftali was killed, my faith was already intact, even after seeing terrible things happening to others. So why should it be any different when something happens to my family? My faith is vulnerable and exposed, and I have no control. This has been a lesson in retaining my humility and faith. I made the decision not to be angry, since it’s just a waste of energy. Anger and hatred just eat you up from within.”
Peretz: “Every Rosh Hashana I prepare a list of all the things God has done for me over the past year, and what I’ve found is that the positive always well outnumber the negative. Yes, sometimes, I’ve gotten quite angry, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not also grateful and that I still have faith. I’m a mother who has had her children taken away from her, so I reserve the right to react this way. We are all human.”
Fraenkel: “I used to think that if you did enough good deeds, then you’d be protected. It turns out this is not true.”
All three women have demanding careers and bustling families, and yet they still find time to speak – as volunteers – across the country to tell their stories.
Do you dream at night about your sons who were killed?
Peretz: “Not long ago, I dreamed I was sitting on the windowsill at home next to Or Hadash, Eliraz’s son, and we were looking out over the green wadi that was blooming. Suddenly, Eliraz passed by right below us. He was wearing a white shirt and he had a large stone in his hand. He walked right up to us and then pushed Or Hadash with the stone and told him, ‘Get moving!’ Then I woke up. I felt like Eliraz knew that his son was having a hard time getting motivated to prepare for his bar mitzva, which was only a year away. When I told Or Hadash about the dream, he began making an effort, and he learned everything by the time his bar mitzva came around.”
Rosenfeld: “In my dreams, I know that the boys are about to die. My husband and I debate whether we should tell Yitzhaki that he’s about to die, and I ask him to choose a sign that would let us know if something dangerous is about to happen. Yitzhaki laughs and then we embrace. The dream about Malachi, though, is crazy. He was able to hint to me about things that would happen in the future through numbers – and some of them have come true. I am a skeptic at heart, and so it’s important for me to examine the dreams fully before I let myself believe they’re true.”
Fraenkel: “I feel like my dreams are a wonderful way to let me connect with Naftali. I’m always so happy when I see him in my dreams.”
Peretz breaks the seriousness by wondering aloud whether Uriel would even recognize her if he were to come back to life suddenly, which causes Rosenfeld and Fraenkel to burst out laughing.
“But he’s watching you all the time from up above,” Fraenkel tells her. Rosenfeld says that she spends a lot of time reading books about what happens to our souls in the world to come, and then Peretz interjects merrily that she’d rather make an effort to enjoy this world first.
Have you found that you deal with the death of your sons differently than your husbands have?
Peretz: “In my experience, they’re much weaker than we are. My husband developed diabetes following Uriel’s death, and on the first anniversary of the death he had a heart attack while we were visiting his grave. I think God loved my husband dearly and realized that he would not be able to survive the death of a second child, and so he took my husband away before Eliraz was killed.”
Rosenfeld: “Women are stronger than men.”
Fraenkel: “Women might be stronger, but this does not reduce the amount of pain and suffering we feel.”
How has the organization OneFamily made you more steadfast?
Rosenfeld: “Like its name says, it’s a family. OneFamily volunteers are always around and ready to help, and they give me the feeling that whatever it is I need, they’re happy to give it to me. The trips they organize for bereaved mothers are a godsend, and they help me relax and let my guard down. I can cry with the other mothers and let myself feel like a little girl because there are so many others to hug me and take care of me.”
Peretz: “OneFamily is like a home. We don’t have to wear any masks here. The organization understands the complications of each family – to them we’re not just a list of bereaved parents or widows. They offer support for children, grandchildren and siblings, too. Shlomit, Eliraz’s widow, had a volunteer assigned to her who helped her with the kids for an entire year. That was incredible. OneFamily volunteers are able to identify what each family needs, and help everyone with the specific things that are hard for them.”
Fraenkel: “What’s amazed me the most is how OneFamily figured out what we needed even before we asked for anything. Mindy, the Jerusalem coordinator, pushed me to take part in a psychodrama group, and I met an incredible group of women there, with whom I both cried and laughed. OneFamily has provided me and my family with a tremendous amount of support.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
CHANTAL BELZBERG, CEO of OneFamily. One big family
• CHANTAL BELZBERG
Knowing that I’m making a difference in people’s lives makes me jump out of bed in the morning and work until late at night, 100 percent on a volunteer basis. It started with a desire to give, to help those whose lives have been shattered by terror, but I found that I receive, in fulfillment and inspiration, a lot more than I give, in time and money.
Doing kindness for others is a contagious and addictive activity. This reality has lured every member of our family to volunteer their unique talents to further the mission of OneFamily, by fund-raising, working as camp counselors, befriending kids their own age and maintaining long-term relationships with those who most need their love and attention.
The OneFamily organization is a result of the unfortunate needs our society has evinced. As the expression goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.”
Israel has suffered more terror attacks than any other Western country, leaving painful physical and emotional scars on every segment of its society, from the north and south, Jews and non-Jews, rich and poor, young and old, men and women, black and white, religious and non-religious and everything in between.
Each attack raised new needs that OneFamily hadn’t yet provided for, and that I believed we needed to offer solutions for as well. Today, the solutions OneFamily provides include financial, medical, emotional, psychological, legal, educational, job transitioning and every other need for which help is requested.
The tragedies in OneFamily include not only children who have lost one or both parents, bereaved parents, spouses and siblings, but also those wounded by terror and their families.
The writer is CEO of OneFamily. For more information on OneFamily visit http://www.onefamilytogether.org/