CHICAGO, Illinois– A crowd of over 500 didn’t let the rain stop them from peacefully gathering afternoon in the plaza of the James R. Thompson Center for a vigil of support for three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped nearly two weeks ago.
Organized by the Jewish United Fund (JUF) with the support of numerous Chicago area synagogues and Israel advocacy groups, the gathering showcased a unified Jewish community joined by local political and Christian leaders.
“We come together in solidarity with the families of the kidnapped teens, Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah,” said David T. Brown, area chairman of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation. “This kidnapping, as shocking as it is, is also the latest episode of a campaign of terror against Israel and the Jewish people.”
Brown went on to condemn the Palestinian government for its “glorification of the kidnapping.” Describing “official Palestinian Facebook pages by Hamas and by Palestinians in the street, saying that these kidnappings are okay,” he reminded the crowd that there are people in the United Nations, as well as the Palestinian prime minister himself, who “deny this kidnapping ever occurred.”
Monday’s event was “conceived and organized” by JUF’s Lewis College interns. Mara Flack, a student at Brandeis University, told the crowd “the theme of today is to focus on these three boys as individuals.” Through her telling the crowd about 16 year-old Naftali Frenkel, a citizen of both the United States and Israel, we learned that he is a “passionate and gifted student” and the eldest of seven children. On this particular day he was supposed to be taking his biology exams.
It was at this point in the vigil that Flack introduced Rabbi Yona Reiss, who led the crowd in a MiSheberach, a prayer of healing, health and wellness.
As the vigil continued, the crowd learned about 16-year-old Gilad Shaar. Besides being a student, he serves his community as a volunteer youth counselor. Shaar loves to bake for his family, enjoys music and spending time with his grandparents.
Flack introduced Reverend Robert Cathey, Professor of Theology at the Presbyterian McCormick Seminary. His appearance was especially significant as days earlier Presbyterian Church USA voted to divest from companies doing business with Israel in the West Bank. The Reverend thanked the crowd for the invitation to speak “at a time when there are great troubles between our communities.”
Denouncing the decision by his church’s general assembly, he described his son’s experience with his Jewish friends growing up. He then offered a prayer for the kidnapped teens, reciting the peaceful words from the song “One Day” by American Jewish Reggae/Rap artist Matisyahu.
Additional prayers were offered during the vigil, as well as the reading of statements by members of the Illinois congressional delegation.
A young woman told us about 19 year-old Eyal Yifrah, the eldest of seven children, who also served as a youth counselor. He was completing his last year of high school, working on a special program that helps develop cities with “low economic status.” A few years earlier he used social media to create awareness of another kidnapping victim, Gilad Shalit.
As the vigil began winding down, the crowd was comforted by the words of Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.
“Chicago stands with Israel. Chicago’s Greek community stands with Israel. I stand with Israel.” Zemenides went on to tell the crowd, “These three boys are not merely Israeli, they’re not merely Jews, they’re not merely American citizens, they are our boys.”
He continued, “We all want peace, but peace requires investing in children, no targeting them. Peace requires we bring back our boys.”