The Jerusalem Post has put together its annual list of '50 most influential Jews' who have impacted the world last year, and have the potential to affect change in years to come.
Israel’s voice of unity
Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel was propelled to international recognition in the worst of circumstances – when her 16-year-old son Naftali was kidnapped and murdered along with two other teens, Eyal Yifrah and Gil-Ad Shaer, in June 2014.
Fraenkel became the most public voice of the families during the three weeks of intensive searching. She addressed prayer vigils and rallies, and told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva how the mothers just wanted to hug their sons again.
She was, and remains, a symbol of the period of unprecedented social unity, prayer and faith, a period that carried on into the rocket-racked days of Operation Protective Edge.
Against this tragic and dramatic backdrop, it is often overlooked that Fraenkel, now a much-requested public speaker, was already a leader and influential thinker before the abduction and death of her son.
“I just love the learning; I hope it’s contagious!” she writes on the faculty list of Nishmat, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center For Advanced Torah Study, one of the two Jerusalem institutes for women’s studies with which she is associated. Here she teaches Talmud and Halacha.
After juggling her busy schedule as teacher, halachic adviser with Nishmat’s hotline, public speaker and mother – the youngest of her six surviving children has just turned five – we catch up at MaTaN, the Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies, where she directs the Hilkhata advanced Halacha program, having been a member of MaTaN’s Talmudic Institute’s first graduating class.
She has become a public figure against her will: “I wasn’t looking to be in the public eye,” she says. “The circumstances have given me a microphone here and there. We just are who we are.”
Unfortunately, she says, there is nothing special or rare about her situation as a bereaved mother.
She works “intuitively”: “I guess it’s working through stigmas and stereotypes.”
Fraenkel notes that the foreign media continue to be surprised by her response to the murder of Jerusalemite Arab teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, an apparent revenge attack she and her family condemned wholeheartedly. “I don’t know anyone who wasn’t shocked and horrified by it,” she stresses.
She and her husband, Avraham, have carried on doing what they did before, she explains: “For me, it’s living and raising my family, teaching Torah and being part of the growing world of Torah learning by women.” Despite the pain, Fraenkel is very focused on the positive.
“One of the special things I saw this year was how amazing people were, and are still. And there is this drive and responsibility to keep that spirit up.”
The Fraenkels, along with the Shaer and Yifrah families and Mayor Nir Barkat, are among the jury of the new Jerusalem Prize for National Unity awarded in memory of their sons.
IT IS easy to see why Fraenkel is in demand as a teacher and speaker. She has a natural enthusiasm and exudes a mix of wit, wisdom, self-deprecation and empathy.
Fraenkel is both a product and a leader of the change in women’s religious studies over the last 25 years.
She began studies in biology and psychology at Bar-Ilan University, but never finished them. Her husband was the one who pointed out that she was far happier when she was studying Torah than when she was studying biology.
She enrolled in the advanced Talmud program at Midreshet Lindenbaum (part of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone network), and quickly felt at home in the world of Torah studies.
“Torah’s essence is passing something on from generation to generation,” she maintains.
That she ended up in this vocation is not a complete surprise, however. Her father received rabbinic ordination from the American Torah giant Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and started a women’s Jewish studies center at Bar-Ilan University, where he founded and was head of the chemistry department.
Fraenkel talks with pride of both her parents, who made aliya from New York, describing her psychologist mother as “vivacious, optimistic and full of life.”
Fraenkel is not a revolutionary. She modestly downplays her role in changing the world of women’s religious studies. But perhaps more than anything last year, Fraenkel will be remembered for reciting Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, at her son’s grave, the first time an Orthodox woman had done it so publicly.
“I was totally unaware of the exposure and the cameras there... When my husband and [eldest] son were called to say Kaddish, I had a split second to decide what to do,” she recalls. She already had 12 years of experience teaching the rules surrounding Kaddish, “so the Halacha was very simple and quite clear to me. There was nothing novel about that.”
Again, she seems surprised that this natural act resonated so loudly, but she “counts among the endless graces” that mothers bereaved in Operation Protective Edge said it enabled them also to recite Kaddish.
How has her own relationship with God changed as a result of the ordeal? I ask.
“Being vulnerable and in a fragile position, where the thing you want more than anything else is out of your control, is a lesson in humility,” she replies. “Prayer has become more real. I know there’s this notion of losing faith, which I can understand on the psychological level, but it’s irrational to me.
Before this, bad things happened to other people; now they have happened to me. Nobody promised me a rose garden or owes me anything... Anger is truly a waste of energy.”
At the funeral, Fraenkel recalled that Naftali had a lovely voice and a gift for harmony. “We will have to learn to sing without you,” she said.
Did they manage to do so? I inquire as gently as I can.
“We still sing but we don’t have his voice, and it is a void in our lives. In our family life, we try to keep him present.
“In some unbelievable way, my 16-year-old kid has affected the lives of so many people in so many ways,” she relates.
Fraenkel still hears from people around the world who were touched by the families’ ordeal, and try to preserve something of the spirit of faith and unity.
It is a way of preserving Naftali’s memory and spirit, too, she says, although she’s careful not to turn him into a saint.
Speaking ahead of Shavuot, in answer to a question, Fraenkel says her motto could come from the “Mitzva shel bikkurim,” the commandment of the first fruits: “Vesamahta bechol hatov...” “Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you...”
Life, she asserts, is about counting your blessings.