A moving event was held on Friday to mark one year since the establishment of the Oz veGaon Nature Preserve, in memory of Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Sha'er, three Israeli teens kidnapped and brutally murdered by Arab terrorists last summer.
Bat-Galim and Ofir Shaer, Gilad's parents, joined leading rabbis, community leaders and the IDF's Etzion Brigade Commander at the event, and told of the days of searching, the worries and, in stark contrast, "the unity that blew wind into the sails of the troops."
Attended by hundreds of supporters of the Jewish pioneers of Judea and Samaria from across the country, the event marked one year since the establishment of Oz veGaon Hill, established by activists from the Women in Green movement the night after the bodies of the three youths were discovered.
The event was entitled "aspiring and searching for unity among the People of Israel," that same sense of unity that accompanied the days of searching and worry for the three youths and continued into the difficult days of Operation Protective Edge.
The event started with a short film of the year in summary at Oz veGaon:
Yehudit Katsover, one of the heads of Women in Green, opened the event, and described the emotions that accompanied the establishment and restoration of the Hill, which became a focal point for Zionist recreation and camping on the hill near Gush Etzion Junction, close to the hitchhiking station from which the three were abducted.
“It was a special summer”, said Katsover, “Everything became mixed in a jumble: pain over the loss of the sons together with Operation Protective Edge, the loftiness of unity among the people. Soldiers and citizens, religious and secular, Left and Right became unified with infinite love that the pain gave rise to.
"Flutters of excitement pass through us when we remember the hundreds of youths who flowed into the Preserve, worked and cleaned, moved rocks and boulders, prepared paths and terraces and the forest came to life, benches and pergolas, installations of water and electricity – and everything had to be done quickly, before the onset of winter.
“And in the winter”, Katsover continued, “we were privileged to have hundreds of winter tourists who came from all areas of Israel.
"The white snow and the memory of the boys attracted everyone to this place and now it is summer again. During the year, thousands of adults and approximately 20,000 youths visited here and heard from Elyashiv Kimhi, manager of the forest, the story of the Land of Israel that is so characteristic: Your blood gives me life! Your blood gives me life! And the forest lives, and the trees of the forest whisper to the Almighty and to all of the workers, who work day and night so that redemption will flourish out of the pain”.
Bat-Galim Shaer told of the feeling of spiritual elevation felt by the entire People last summer, from the beginning of IDF operation to find the boys and into the days of the war with Gazan terrorists. “In Oz veGaon we returned to our values, to the act of giving, which we now know how to do; we are proud of our Jewishness and our values”.
Later in her touching words, Bat-Galim related to the name of the Preserve – Oz veGaon – which denotes the brilliance (ge’onut) that is implied in the word “Gaon” (genius): “Everyone expresses the ability and talent that the Almighty created in him, each one and his uniqueness and his genius and together we all try to channel this genius into a mission that is greater than “I”, a connection to something greater, that joins all of the People of Israel together."
She added that there is a sort of reticence around the word “genius”, which seems not to sit well with the concept of humility, but “in prayer we meet the integration of ‘strength (oz) and humility’ of the Almighty”
“Gilad, Ayal and Naftali had social skills, skills in music and sport and learning along with humility, but with a lot of influence and social leadership”, Bat-Galim said.
She added that the term “nature preserve” was very appropriate for the site, which expresses the hope to preserve nature as it is, in its uncultivated and primary beauty.
“This place is called a nature preserve, and since the murder, Nadia and Yehudit have carried out an amazing process in this place.
"Nature is a primal thing, wild and natural, and our desire is to maintain this natural quality. As parents, we are required to maintain that same youthful spirit. The preservation of nature is here too, the placement of benches and equipment, while maintaining the natural appearance. The sons, who are above, experience much satisfaction from this place."
All three boys “were very connected to nature. Gilad used to be the first to go into every stream and every hike,” she said.
“The Jewish point of view is to search for the good and there is a lot of good concentrated in this place. This hill represents one of the high points in the doing of good deeds,” she added.
Shaer also stressed that the national unite expressed at the time need not be fleeting.
“We value every moment that volunteers spent searching for the boys. This volunteering and unity and the connection of the entire People in such an operation during a time of crisis is not to be taken for granted."
Rabbi Dov Zinger, head of the Makor Haim Yeshiva where Gilad and Naftali studied, also spoke at the event, as did Former MK Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli (Jewish Home), who focused on the need to act in practical ways as part of the memorial.
“The Baal Shem Tov taught us not to stay in a place of pain," Mualem-Rafaeli said, referencing the Jewish mystic and founder of the hassidic movement. "When we want to remember the beloved, we are not speaking of an abstract memory, but rather of activity. We must do something here in the spirit of these wonderful youths, with the connection to the essence of this Land. These youths are another point of connectivity to this Land."
She also recounted her memories of the night the boys' tragic murders was unearthed
"We all went out of the Makor Haim study house and continued to the station from which they had been abducted and from there to the Gush Etzion Junction and we sat there with youths and sang with pain; Nadia and Yehudit said that together with remembrance we must act, and they brought everyone here at four in the morning with the total encouragement of the Council head,” she recalled.
“The presence of all of us here is an expression of the connection of the People to the Land and to Judaism. We are an anchor of this remembrance as we hold on to this action.”