The Human Spirit: Empowered by grief

I wonder how many of the rabbis would have listened to these intelligent, thoughtful religious women if they hadn’t stepped into the public sphere when their teenage sons went missing.

By
January 8, 2015 17:29
Rachel Fraenkel, Bat-Galim Shaer and Iris Yifrah

From left to right: Rachel Fraenkel, Bat-Galim Shaer and Iris Yifrah speak at the Knesset on June 25, five days before their son’s were discovered near Halhoul.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

We’d like to go back to our lives, says Racheli Fraenkel, whose son Naftali was kidnapped and murdered in June.

She’s on a panel together with Iris Yifrah and Bat-Galim Shaer, whose sons Eyal and Gil-Ad were murdered in the same terror attack last June. Since then, the women, often called “The Three Mothers” or, as one headline put it, “The Three Mothers United in Grief,” have become public figures, called upon to speak in Israel and abroad.

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I know it’s unfair to ask, but please stay in the limelight.

We need your voices.

Earlier that week, the three bereaved mothers had lit Hanukka candles in Chabad of Talbiyeh’s public lighting at the Mamilla Mall, with thousands of attendees.

The panel tonight is titled “Enduring the Test of Faith,” and the women are being interviewed by religious journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir. The event is part of the World Zionist Organization’s Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora’s annual gathering of Orthodox rabbis, with some 130 such rabbis and community leaders from 42 countries, including the US, France, Brazil, Germany, Croatia, Russia, Spain, Argentina, Greece, India, Turkey, Austria – and of course, Israel.

The music program for the evening features a men’s choir and the IDF’s cantor, although a woman accompanies the singing on the piano.

I wonder how many of the rabbis would have listened to these intelligent, thoughtful religious women if they hadn’t stepped into the public sphere when their teenage sons went missing. The conference did hear a speech by Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, on women’s empowerment; women professors and specialists on subjects like Holocaust education have spoken in previous years.

Mothers, sisters and wives of victims of bloodshed have a newfound legitimacy in the public discourse, and even more impressively, in the religious world – where women often feel inhibited by societal norms and pressure not to take on public leadership.

The role model for such a public role is the extraordinary Esther Wachsman.

Her son Nachshon was kidnapped by Hamas in 1994, 20 years ago. Esther, born in a German DP camp in 1947 to parents who had survived the Holocaust, entreated women to light an extra Shabbat candle for her son. She received 30,000 letters from women who had added that candle – some of whom had lit Shabbat candles for the first time.

And then came the terrible news of Nachshon’s murder, and at the funeral the unforgettable message of his father, Yehuda Wachsman, that the prayers had not gone to waste. Sometimes the Father in Heaven, like the dad on earth, has to say “no.”

Esther, a religious woman with seven sons and a teacher at Jerusalem’s elite Hebrew University High School, went on to become an international public speaker, an advocate for other families whose children had been kidnapped, and an activist and spokeswoman for Shalva, the Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel. Other bereaved mothers have followed in her footsteps, using the tragic circumstances of their lives as a springboard for promoting good.

Remarkable women.

A parallel outpouring of love and support surrounded the Fraenkels, Yifrahs and Shaers for the 18 days of not knowing if their teenage sons were alive or dead, and in coping with their murders.

Why did the mothers become the focus? asked Rahav-Meir. Bat-Galim Shaer said she thought it was a media gimmick, but I don’t agree. These beautiful, modestly dressed women became icons of faith and goodness in a world that’s short on them.

They also defy the stereotypes of submissive and subjugated religious women.

They are devoted mothers of large families, working women, intelligent and inspirational. And they have a lot to say that’s worth hearing.

Rachel Sprecher Fraenkel is the bestknown.

She heads the Hilkhata program of Matan, a premier study center for observant women in Jerusalem.

Its goals are to “deepen and expand halachic areas in which women aspire to be scholars, with expertise and comprehensive knowledge.” Graduates are about as close as an Orthodox woman can get to being a rabbi.

She also teaches at Nishmat, another premier center, and is a certified yoetzet Halacha, a woman to whom other women turn with questions about mikve and ritual purity. Her students call her rabbanit – in her own merit, not because her husband is a rabbi.

Fraenkel recited Kaddish at her son’s funeral. The chief rabbis listened with respect and said “Amen.” How many women who have refrained from joining their loved one’s Kaddish were empowered by that simple act? How many of the rabbis in the audience encourage their women congregants to say this prayer? I don’t know.

Rabbanit Fraenkel recalled a phone call from someone who identified himself as a “non-affiliated Jew,” but then assured her there was no such thing anymore.

Her fellow panelists confirmed they felt embraced by people from all backgrounds, too. Iris Yifrah spoke of the inner strength she discovered she had to both face the crisis, and to go outside and meet the media.

“We in the media had a hard time speaking your language. We were looking for headlines, and you were speaking of unity and love,” said MC Rahav-Meir.

“Who says headlines need to contain attacks?” asked Yifrah.

Rahav-Meir spoke of a TV news colleague who said the three mothers were always asking for prayers. “But how do you pray?” The three mothers might be categorized as Orthodox via the national-religious camp, but in the haredi world, the wives of the four men stabbed and bludgeoned to death in a Har Nof synagogue have also taken on a public role.

Speaking at the end of the seven-day shiva mourning period for her husband, Rabbi Mosheh Twersky, Bashi Twersky used the podium to censure the maliciousness among groups in the religious public. There’s a voice we need to hear more from.

Speaking at a Women to Women gathering in Jerusalem sponsored by the Orthodox Union Center on Hanukka, Yaakova Kupinsky – whose husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, was murdered – spoke about trying to figure out life as a single mother, far from the ideal she had dreamed about when she pictured her life. We’re all dealing with some parts of our lives that aren’t ideal, also as a nation, she said.

In a beautiful metaphor, she compared the efforts we make to overcome our real-life struggles to the crowns on the letters of the Torah that according to tradition, were added to the letters by Rabbi Akiva. There’s a voice I’d like to hear more from.

At the same rally, Chaya Levine – whose husband, Kalman Levine, was murdered – urged women to hone what’s important, in order to unite for common goodness as well as the common good.

These women not only debunk the negative stereotypes within general society, but they bring new thinking, talent and role models to the unventilated corridors of power in the religious world.

Let us not wait for tragedies to empower and legitimize such sagacious and motivational women to sound their voices in the public sphere.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.


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