Westport rabbi brings comfort to violence-torn Israel
Updated 11:10 am, Thursday, July 24, 2014
Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn has been to Israel many times. But his latest visit has been the most profound.
On a solidarity mission to the violence-wracked nation, the leader of The Conservative Synagogue in Westport met Wednesday with the mother of one of three Yeshiva students who were kidnapped and murdered there last month -- an incident that escalated the violence between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip of Palestine.
"She is the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, and she was incredibly inspiring," he said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
Wiederhorn is among 40 rabbis and lay persons traveling in Israel with the Rabbinical Assembly and Masorti Foundation. They are trying to comfort those affected by the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, a militant Islamic movement that opposes peace with Israel.
The rabbi was moved by the resolve of the grieving mother. "She was so full of life," Wiederhorn said. "She said she's been touched by all those who have reached out to her and her family."
Wiederhorn said the woman is the mother of six other children. "She told them, promised them, that she would not allow this tragedy to bring them down," Wiederhorn said.
"She said she told them they will have a happy life. `I promised my kids that,' she told us."
Wiederhorn was among three Westporters on the mission. He and lay people Orna Stern and Larry Kleinman arrived Monday in Israel and planned to leave Thursday.
"Our mission was to bring good spirits to the Israeli community," Wiederhorn said "We want to show them that we support them physically and spiritually. We like to say we speak with our feet."
He said the resolve of the slain student's mother reflects a broader national trait.
"The Israelis are incredibly resilient," he said. "People here have to live with a certain amount of tension and anxiety."
That's especially true in the nation's south, he said. "We were in towns that are getting regular red alerts -- sirens keep going off -- warning about missiles coming their way.
"You have to be in a secure place or bomb shelter when that happens -- all the summer camps have been moved inside," he said, noting not many who live in the south venture out too far. "They don't walk freely in the streets," he said.
Wiederhorn said he hadn't been concerned for his own safety. "Honestly, I haven't," he said. "I have been here many, many times and you have to get used to it."
He said that's also because Israel has "incredible technology preventing any major catastrophe or major damage due to the high success rate in knocking out missiles."
Wiederhorn said his group -- rabbis and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement of Judaism -- also visited the graves of the three murdered Yeshiva students, Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar.
Their trip came even as the U.S. State Department issued a warning against travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza due to current hostilities.
U.S. and European airlines halted flights Tuesday to Israel after a rocket landed near Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv. But some airlines continued service, including El Al Israeli Airlines, on which Wiederhorn had booked his flight home.