The annual Jerusalem Unity Award ceremony was held on Monday at the President’s Residence.
In Israel’s fractured society, tragedy becomes a unifying factor as was the case five years ago when three teenage yeshiva boys Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel unknowingly hitched a ride with Hamas terrorists, who kidnapped them and murdered them.
The boys were standing outside Alon Shvut in the Etzion Bloc, waiting for a car that might be going their way.
Following their disappearance, there were 18 agonizing days in which their fate was supposedly in the balance. Only after the discovery of their bodies was it learned that they had been killed soon after their capture. There was an outpouring of solidarity with their families, with congregations around the country and throughout the Jewish world, offering prayers for the safe return of the three missing boys.
In every Israeli family in which there were teenage youngsters, there was the realization that it could have happened to them. There had been an enormous pulling together of sympathy for and empathy with the parents of the three boys: Iris and Uri Yifrah, Bat-Galim and Ofir Shaer and Rachel and Avraham Fraenkel.
As the story unfolded, it was widely reported in the global media. When the bodies of the three boys were discovered, the whole nation went into shock and many people wept as if for their own sons. Thousands of Israelis attended the joint funeral in Modi’in, where the coffins of the three youths were draped with national flags. Among those attending were then-president Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, government ministers and the two chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef. Youth movements came en masse from all over Israel as did many adults, and a constant stream of people later visited the homes of the grieving families to offer their condolences.
In light of this united front, then-mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, together with executive members from the Gesher (Bridge) organization, met with the parents of the three boys and suggested that a Jerusalem Unity Prize be established in their memories as an ongoing symbol of the eternal Jewish belief that we are responsible for each other and united in good times and bad.
The decision to establish the prize was made in September 2014,and it was officially announced in January 2015 at the President’s Residence with the participation of President Reuven Rivlin, who, since taking office, has worked tirelessly toward achieving national unity.
The prize is now awarded annually close to the anniversary of the boys’ deaths by the Jerusalem Municipality in partnership with Gesher and the three families, which have become extended members of each other’s families, and have traveled to Europe and the United States to demonstrate unity and continuity in the face of tragedy.
Recipients of the Jerusalem Unity Prize have been individuals and organizations in Israel and the Diaspora that have distinguished themselves in promoting mutual respect and the pursuit of communal, national and global unity.
At this year’s awards ceremony on Monday, Rivlin lauded the three bereaved families saying that out of the darkness of their grief, they had radiated a nobility of spirit that a cast a light on the whole nation.
“From your homes, a light radiated over the whole of Israel,” he said.
“Unity does not mean uniformity,” said Gila Gamliel, Social Equality Minister. People can have different viewpoints, but a common goal, she explained.
In her travels around the country, she has met people from every sector and has come away convinced that there is a sense of unity. Like Rivlin, she praised the Yifrach, Shaer and Fraenkel families, who have taught the nation a wonderful lesson by example, she said, adding that “Unity should be part of our national strategy and a common value.”
Gamliel also referred to last weekend’s demonstrations by Israelis of Ethiopian background and said that while discrimination and racism are totally unacceptable, violence is not the way to eradicate this kind of bias.
Barkat, who chairs the committee that reviews applications and nominations for the prize, echoed Rivlin and Gamliel in noting the national response of amazement to the noble actions of the three families, and said that their resilience had helped to strengthen the nation.
Speaking from his 10 years experience as mayor, Barkat said that in a complex city such as Jerusalem, unity is vital.
“Despite all our differences, we must find a common denominator,” he said. “It is much easier to be extreme and intolerant, but much more important to be united. We must learn to live together – Right and Left, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs.” This is essential in society in general, he said, but in politics in particular.
Speaking on behalf of the parents, Ofir Shaer said that the winners, past and present do not do what they do to win a prize. What they do is part of their daily lifestyle.
The theme of this year’s awards was Choosing Good.
“The opposite of good is not evil,” said Shaer. “It’s indifference. People must not be indifferent to their families or their communities. They must take responsibility.”
Over the past five years, he said, the families had been embraced by both Reuven and Nechama Rivlin. Now it was their turn to grieve with Rivlin over the death of his wife. “We chose life,” he said, “and you have also chosen life, light and goodness. Tragedy must not be allowed to triumph.”
This year’s winners, all chosen for various modes of getting to know and understand the other without sacrificing ones own values and traditions were Gan Yavne, the Hinam Center, the Plugta Center and Moishe House.
The latter began in 2006 in Oakland, California, when four friends who had not been active in Jewish life decided to host a Shabbat dinner and put out the word on social media. Seventy-two people showed up. The initiators realized that there was an acute need for young people in their 20s to form their own communities, and that was how Moishe House was born. The nonprofit currently operates in 27 countries, and its global community is in the realm of 60,000 people.
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