Leehy Shaer, the aunt of Gilad Shaer, one of three Israeli teenagers allegedly kidnapped by Hamas members in Israel’s West Bank on June 12, appealed to members of Congress on Tuesday, calling for their release in a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“We want him home where he belongs, with his family who loves him so much,” Shaer, a resident of both Israel and Los Angeles, said at a news conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday. “Yes, this happened in Israel. But we all know that the terrorists could make this happen any place in the world. We must stand strong against all the terrorists and all the terrorist organizations. We must strongly let the terrorists know that they will never win.”
Flanked by U.S. lawmakers, Shaer described how her nephew, Gilad, one of six children, is a caring brother to his five sisters. She then addressed her nephew via the news media. “Your family, the nation of Israel and all friends of Israel are standing together to be strong for you and your friends.”
Gilad Shaer, 16, Naftali Frenkel, 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, are yeshiva students in Israel who have been missing since they hitchhiked home from school over two weeks ago.
People around the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, have been holding vigils and rallies calling for their release. On signs and social media, they have used the hashtag, “#BringBackOurBoys,” first introduced after more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria back in April.
A group of more than 50 local women from the Kemp Mill, Aspen Hill and Shepherd Park communities held a “#BringBackOurBoys” gathering of song and prayer in a private home the same night Shaer spoke in D.C. They were joined by none other than Shaer herself, who shared personal stories about her nephew—including how he enjoys baking cupcakes, learning Torah and praying with emotion.
Kemp Mill resident and Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy board member Shuly Babitz, along with longtime friend and musician Dahlia Topolosky—wife of Rabbi Uri Topolosky, who leads Beth Joshua Congregation in Aspen Hill—organized the gathering at Babitz’s home by reaching out to women in the observant Jewish community via social media.
It was a chance occurrence that Shaer attended the gathering, as earlier in the day she coincidentally struck up a conversation with Kemp Mill resident and event attendee Shayna Hefetz at a local kosher restaurant, according to Babitz.
A member of Kemp Mill Synagogue, Babitz felt that people needed an outlet to talk about the situation and feel connected with the rest of the Jewish nation, and held the gathering at her home.
“We felt there was an absence of discussion and emotion in the shul about what was going on,” Babitz says. “I have a small living room, but I wanted to open up my home because it was personal.” Babitz says that almost every woman and girl in attendance was in tears at some point during the event, “whether they were thinking about the impact of the kidnapped boys” or whether the music allowed them to reflect on events that have occurred in their own lives.
A photo taken of the women and their signs was shared on the Facebook page for Mothers Unite: #BringBackOurBoys. The Israel-based group, started by two women from Silver Spring who now live in the Israeli settlement of Alon Shvut, promotes action and publicity about the kidnappings by sharing photos with the slogan from people around the world.
Babitz said she hopes that, as a result of the meeting in her home, the families of the missing teens will know that Jews on the other side of the world are crying, praying, and showing support.
“What we did does serve a purpose in providing moral support for these boys,” she said. “My daughter says they look like boys that we know. This could happen to any of us.”
View Shaer’s speech on Capitol Hill here.
[email protected] @IanDavidZelaya