As three abducted Israeli teens ended their first week of captivity, communities from across Canada and around the world held vigils, gathered in solidarity and said prayers for their safe return.
From Vancouver to Halifax, Jews gath-ered in support of Gilad Shaar, 16, Naftali Frenkel, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, who were kidnapped by suspected Hamas terrorists while hitchhiking near Hebron June 12.
It was the kind of outpouring of sup-port not seen since Jewish communities around the world rallied for Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006 in a raid near Israel’s border with Gaza.
The largest of the events was held June 19 in the Toronto area, where as many as 1,000 people came together at the Schwartz/Reisman Centre at the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus. The rally was sponsored by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto in conjunction with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
In Montreal, about 400 people attended a June 15 prayer vigil at Congregation Beth Israel-Beth Aaron in Côte St. Luc. The vigil was sponsored by Israeli Consul General Joel Lion in co-operation with CIJA.
Chana Landau, a relative living in Montreal, relayed the thanks of the Frenkel family to Jews around the world for their expressions of solidarity.
Chaviva Lifson read a message of gratitude from the Shaar family, who live a block from her sister in Israel.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Congregation Beth Israel-Beth Aaron said the perpetrators of the abductions are likely similar to those causing havoc in many parts of the world today.
“You know who they are from every headline in the newspaper. They’re the same people who kidnapped girls in Ni-geria, the same ones who attack an air-port in Karachi, Pakistan, the same ones who terrorize Somalia and Sudan, who butcher civilians in Syria, and who are destroying Iraq,” Rabbi Poupko said.
“But when they hurt a Jew, all of a sudden, the world gets confused and bewildered, and they lose their moral compass.”
Other Montreal speakers included Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem and Federation CJA president Susan Laxer.
In Toronto, MP and former justice minister Irwin Cotler recounted his visit to Israel when news of the teens’ abduction broke. Reports in Israeli newspapers were dominated “by a sense of angst and anguish,” Cotler stated. While it was reported only as a footnote in the western media, in Israel it rekindled memories of the Schalit abduction, which captured the nation’s attention.
Cotler attributed the kidnapping to Hamas, pointing out the Islamic terrorist group is pledged to destroy Israel and kill Jews. He noted that even before the kidnappings, Israeli media reported that security forces had foiled 44 attempts to kidnap Israelis in the last year alone.
He said former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, whom he met during his visit, stressed how important it was for his family and for him to know that Jews from around the world were rallying to his cause when he was in a Soviet prison.
Cotler said the operation to locate the teens is code-named “I am my brothers’ keeper,” and Israelis of all denominations are united in praying for the boys’ safe return.
Demonstrating support for the families of the three victims was a key motivation for many of those at the rally. Dan Kiselvich and Noy Goldenberg came with their own home-made sign calling for the freedom of the teens.
“I’m here to support the three teenagers,” said Kiselvich, a native of Israel. “I want my brothers returned home.”
Claire Braseliten said she came “to show support for the boys and to demonstrate “that the Jewish community stands together. We feel this episode is abhorrent. As a parent and as a new grandparent, it is very scary. Other than that, every Jewish child is our child. Just like Gilad Schalit, who was everybody’s child.”
“Those kids could have been any of ours,” Roz Lofsky said. “We all feel for those boys and we want to show solidarity with them.”
“We’re here to say that we are in sup-port of those parents so they know they are not alone,” added Gladys Isenberg.
In Toronto, Conservative MP Mark Adler brought greetings from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and drew a loud round of applause when he said, “Canada will stand with Israel through fire and water.”
The government is “deeply concerned” by the kidnappings, he said, adding he had spoken to Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird, both of whom “were concerned for the safety and security of the boys.”
He called on the Palestinian Authority to disarm Hamas, take control of smuggling tunnels in Gaza and demonstrate its commitment to peace by reuniting the boys with their families.
Other speakers included Consul General DJ Schneeweiss. Sports journalist Elliotte Friedman served as emcee.
In addition to members of the Jewish community, the event was attended by Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria, vice-president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada for the Ontario region.
Messages of support were received from the United Macedonians Organization of Canada and from Dominic Campione, past national president of the National Congress of Italian Canadians, which represents 1.4 million Canadians of Italian origin.
“Our prayers and thoughts are united for the safe return of the three missing teens and we are united with you, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and CIJA, the teens’ families, and the people of Israel in this most important healing and communal gathering,” Campione said in a message read at the vigil.
In Halifax, Rabbi Ari Isenberg, spiritual leader of Shaar Shalom Congregation, in conjunction with CIJA officiated at a community-wide “Vigil of Hope For The Safe Return of Our Boys” on Shabbat.
At the same time, Rabbi Amram Maccabi of the Beth Israel Synagogue said special prayers for the abducted teens.
On the west coast, the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and other community organizations, sponsored a community prayer service at the Jewish Community Centre.
Valder Belgrave, a spokesperson for the federation in Vancouver, said “our sympathies are with the families, and it’s sad that they are drawn into the larger issue. They’re innocent victims in the larger scheme of things.”
In Hamilton, Temple Anshe Sholom, in conjunction with the Hamilton Jewish Federation, hosted a community gathering “in solidarity with the families of the three Israeli students.”
In Winnipeg, congregations Shaarey Zedek, Etz Chayim, Herzlia-Adas Yeshu-run, Chevra Mishnayes and Temple Shalom co-sponsored a prayer vigil in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg.
The vigil, held at the Shaarey Zedek synagogue, included a candlelighting ceremony, the recitation of psalms, a prayer for captives, the singing of Hatikvah and cantorial renditions of Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael (All Israel are Brothers) and Bring Back our Boys, a song written in the last week in Israel.
About 70 people attended the event, said Rena Elbaze, Jewish engagement specialist at the Winnipeg Federation.
Elbaze said the participation of a range of community organizations spanning a variety of denominations shows “we pray as a community and we’re united as a community when faced with these problems.
“We prayed for the sake of the boys, but also to make people present feel they are not alone and to show the families of the people who were kidnapped that people care about them.”
Organizers also used social media to send out calls for prayers and support for the victims’ families, Elbaze added.
In Toronto, supporters of the abducted boys were asked to use the hashtag #JewishToronto “to send a message of support to the families of the abducted teens,” said federation spokesperson Dan Horowitz. “It garnered 242 personal notes. We are now compiling those messages into a document which will be sent to the families as a demonstration of support and solidarity.
“We leveraged Facebook as a tool to quickly and easily facilitate this initiative within a small, local population. Within just a few days, this single Facebook post received 1,478 likes and was shared 203 times,” he said.
With files from Janice Arnold in Montreal.