‘Part of my heart is gone and yet I have to continue’

Yifrah family speaks of going on as country marks one year since kidnapping, murder of three teens.

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)
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.
“I am on my way home,” were the last words Eyal Yifrah, 19, told his mother over the phone right before he was kidnapped and killed by Hamas on the night of June 12, along with Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gil-Ad Shaer, 16.
In the difficult year that has followed, the phrase “on my way” has come to symbolize for Eyal’s mother, Iris, her son’s love of life and the fervor with which he lived it.
“He was young. He loved to do things. He was always on his way somewhere. In almost every message he left me, he would say, ‘I’m going to meet friends. I’m heading to the yeshiva. I’m leaving for the trip.”
She and her husband, Uri, spoke with The Jerusalem Post Sunday night in the living room of their home in Elad.
A number of times during the conversation, Iris glanced at the screen door through which her oldest son often returned, but through which he would never again walk.
On the wall by the mirror, hung a photograph of Eyal in a white shirt with a small bird that had landed on his hand.
A singer who loved to play guitar, Eyal left behind recordings of his songs, one of which his sister uses as a ringtone. Occasionally, during the conversation, when her phone rang, his voice resounded through the downstairs rooms.
“Our lives have divided themselves in two,” said Uri. “There is the time before the kidnapping and after the kidnapping. There is the moment that Eyal was with us and then there was the moment that he was gone.”
He was the oldest of seven children, said Iris, who explained that, at the time he was taken, her home was a happy place filled with love.
“Eyal very much loved life. He would come in this door and his voice would uplift the house.
Now he is absent. That is it. He won’t come in the door anymore.
There is nothing that can replace Eyal,” she said.
Still, they have found that Eyal can continue to live through them by way of a series of continued activities in his memory that highlight things he loved and through the unity of the worldwide Jewish community that has embraced their family — and the Fraenkel and Shaer families — since the kidnapping.
On Wednesday, a million people in Jewish communities around the world will hold a Unity Day of events in memory of the three kidnapped teens.
The events, which will be held one day after the Hebrew anniversary of the kidnapping, are sponsored by the families, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Gesher. In the capital, the daylong program, which focuses on Jewish unity, will culminate in a ceremony at the official home of President Reuven Rivlin in which the newly created Jerusalem Unity Prize will be awarded.
“Eyal will live on in this prize that focuses on people, action and unity,” said Iris.
As native-born Israelis, she and Uri had never really taken the Diaspora community into account but, from the start, during the weeks of uncertainty when the teens were missing, they received letters and emails from around the globe.
Iris had never even left the country. Her first trip abroad was together with the two other mothers, Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel and Bat-Galim Shaer, to address the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva after the kidnapping.
During the mourning period, people they did not know flew to Israel just to visit them as emissaries of their home communities.
“There was someone who landed, came here, went to Nof Ayalon (where the Fraenkel family lived) and Talmon (the home of the Shaer family) and then left,” recalled Iris.
“It was amazing how close you could be to people who were so far away. It was the kind of love that was bigger than the ocean and moved faster then an airplane,” she said.
One foreign donor provided funds for three Torah scrolls to be written in the name of the teens, said Uri. During the shiva, a scribe came to their home and wrote down the opening lines of Genesis: “In the beginning.”
As an optimistic person, Iris said that last year, on that Thursday night, she was not worried as she waited for her son to return home for Shabbat.
On that last night, Eyal left the yeshiva in Hebron where he studied, visited his grandmother in the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement, and then called his mother to let her know he would be home soon. It was the last time she heard his voice.
From Kiryat Arba, he went to Gush Etzion where he stood at a hitchhiking post together with Naftali and Gil-Ad. Although he did not know them, when a car pulled up to the post, he got in with the two other teens. None of them understood, until it was too late, that the driver was a Palestinian terrorist.
At about 10 p.m. Iris wondered where Eyal was and sent him an SMS that went unanswered.
A few hours later, she noted that he was still absent. Typically, he would have contacted her to explain the delay, so she sent him another SMS.
When there was no response, she called him but it immediately went into his voice mail. Her husband also was not home.
She paced a bit wondering what to do, but calmed herself with obvious answers. Eyal’s cellphone could have died, he could have gone to visit friends.
She slept only in fits and starts. Each time she woke she checked his room, but he was not there. By 6 a.m., she got on the phone.
His grandmother said he had left, and his friends said he was not in the yeshiva.
Her eyes fill with tears as she recalled those moments when she understood that he was missing.
“No one knew where he was,” said Iris.
Her next step was to go the police station.
Once she was there, she received a call from one of his friends, who told her that Eyal had contacted him close to 10 p.m. to tell him he was at the hitchhiking post near the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank.
It was only then that the family and police began to connect him to the two teenagers they already believed had been kidnapped.
Throughout the following weeks, Iris said she remained optimistic her son would return home alive.
“In my imagination, I saw him entering the house. I knew he was going through something difficult, but I believed with a full heart that he would return.”
They were so certain this was true that when Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky visited and left them a book, they asked him to inscribe it with a message to Eyal.
Uri removed the book from the shelf and read out the handwritten message.
“Eyal, stand strong and strengthen all of Israel. We are praying and waiting. The nation of Israel lives.”
“That was when we believed he would come home,” Uri said.
Iris added, “Until someone looked me in the eye and said he had died, I went with my heart, which told me he was still alive.”
Iris recalled how after her son’s death, Eyal’s younger sister Reut, who was then six, asked her, “How many children are we now. She understood that we had to change how we counted. But I said, this family has seven children and it will always have seven children.”
Eyal’s 20th birthday, she said, fell on July 17, during Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza known as Operation Protective Edge.
They held a night of learning in his memory and put up a birthday sign for him.
“Everyone in the family wrote something to him from their heart,” Iris recalled.
Eyal’s death has changed them, she said.
It has underscored for them that “no matter what our plans and dreams are, we have no control over our lives.”
“But we cannot fall or falter,” Iris said as she tried to describe how she and her family had found the courage to move forward in spite of Eyal’s death.
“Part of my heart is gone, and yet I have to continue,” she said, explaining that she now lives for both herself and her son.
“It is not easy,” she said. “Eyal is always with us, and because of that I am always thinking of what I can do for him.”
She stressed, however, that it is also important to focus on the rest of her family.
“I don’t want to lose anything else in life,” Iris said.
She was helped in her journey forward by Eyal’s last entry in his diary, just hours before he was killed, and has since photocopied the handwritten pages into a bound book. Iris opened to the last pages to show how he had written on that day about how important it was to live life to its fullest.
“I feel as if he was leaving us his last words.
It was as if he was talking to us. It was if he was saying, ‘Mother, it’s true that I am leaving you, but I do not want you to fall apart from this. I don’t want you just to survive. I want you to continue to live, to love and to be happy.’” She added, “That is what needs to happen now.”