'A road that shakes the heart and soul'

Hundreds gather at the Oz Vegaon reserve in Gush Etzion to commemorate the memory of Gil-ad, Eyal and Naftali.

Hezki Baruch ,

Uri and Iris Yifrach at the site
Uri and Iris Yifrach at the site
Credit: Hezki Baruch

The five year anniversary since the kidnapping and murder of the three boys, Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali, was commemorated at the Oz Vegaon reserve in the heart of Gush Etzion on Friday. The reserve was established in memory of the three boys.

The conference was attended by Gush Etzion Mayor Shlomo Ne'eman, who spoke following the greetings of the leaders of the Women in Green movement, Yehudit Katzover and Nadia Matar.

Katzover and Metar expressed gratitude to the Almighty for "the right to redeem a portion of the Land of Israel" and later thanked donors from Israel and abroad as well as the heads of the Gush Etzion council and the various departments that help strengthen and maintain the Oz Vegaon reserve. Special thanks were expressed to the security forces guarding the area.

Ne'eman opened his speech with words of gratitude to "Nadia and Yehudit, who don't rest for even a moment, in order that this land will flourish and stay in our hands. Without you, this wouldn't have happened."

Ne'eman said. "Five years ago we stood here during the time we were searching [for the boys], which instilled in us the feeling of what sacrifice and closeness arouse within the Jewish people. Sacrifice gives rise to feelings that until a moment ago weren't there. It's not the tragedy but the sense of shared responsibility - that all of the Jewish people are responsible for each other. This responsibility transforms us into who we are."

Following Ne'eman's speech, 18 trees were planted at the entrance to the reserve as a symbol of life's response to the mourning and bereavement that terror attempted to instill in the Jewish people. Three large memorial stones were erected alongside the entrance in memory of the three boys.

In addition, a commemorative rock was erected in memory of Ezra Schwartz, a yeshiva student from Boston who was murdered near the reserve in a terrorist attack on his way to an agricultural activity in Oz Vegaon.

In the second part of the event, the audience gathered at the tent reserved for events to hear the speakers, including Racheli Fraenkel and Iris Yifrach, mothers of two of the three boys, Rabbi Yaakov Medan, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva and former Knesset speaker Shuli Mualem-Refaeli. Mualem-Refaeli, as a resident of the area, greatly contributed to the construction of the reserve.

"We all remember the difficult day five years ago," Rabbi Yaakov Medan said. "We were hit with the most painful blow since we returned to Gush Etzion. We had a difficult dilemma at the time, whether to tell our youth not to frequent the hitchhiking stations and stay only within their communities. It was an idea that would have left the junctions deserted, but the IDF supported the statement that the murder would not remain a trauma but a lever for growth."

Rabbi Medan then mentioned current events, stressing the importance and uniqueness of Ethiopian Jewry, who express devotion to the Torah, the commandments and the Land of Israel. "We all grieve for Salomon Tekah, who was killed. But I want to say to my Ethiopian brothers: If you want to see how to flourish, come here to Oz Vegaon."

"There is also a spiritual growth in the activity of the three mothers who are working to strengthen the people of Israel, as well as the stubborn growth of this site, Oz Vegaon, which separates Beit Fajar from Gush Etzion and leaves the Gush junction as a Jewish site. One can see how difficult it is, but feelings of destruction leads to growth instead of leading to a sense of victimhood. Achieving this growth is our only choice."

Greetings were also delivered by former Knesset member Shuli Mualem-Refaeli, who described the mothers of the three boys as teachers for the unity of Israel and praised their association with Yehudit Katzover and Nadia Matar "who connect us all through the concept of sovereignty."

"I listen and learn and try to implement both of them, true unity and cooperation and connection to the land, the people and the Torah, and on the other hand, to act to advance Israel's sovereignty over the land which is the task of this generation," Mualem-Refaeli said.

Particularly moving words were said by Iris Yifrah and Racheli Fraenkel, the mothers of Eyal and Naphtali.

Iris Yifrach described her feelings when she visits the reserve that she sees as the continuation of the boys' lives: "Every time we travel on the winding road in the hills of Gush Etzion, a road that shakes the heart and soul and inflicts us with endless pain and longing, it's not simple. I have difficulty getting back to myself at the end of the road. But a few dozen meters from the road, we arrive at this place that proudly bears the names of our sons. We see the children playing here and the trees. This is a continuation of the life of our sons whom we can't embrace but I can imagine them here in this place, full of life and action."

Yifrach also mentioned her husband's remarks on the day the messengers came to inform the family that they found the bodies of the boys. Her husband, Uri, told the people at the door, "You saved our family." Iris explains, "The moment of finding the boys was one of the ten things that were created at twilight. Those who found them saved our lives. There were those who didn't return. I thank the Almighty that He saved our lives."

Yifrah sees the establishment of the reserve as a "comforting stroke to our pained hearts. It's true that there is no consolation, and the pit is not filled, but it fills up with wonderful messengers who chose to take this painful moment and unite us all. I pray for the continuation of the flourishing of this site and it should be filled with unity, action and growth."

Racheli Fraenkel also spoke movingly, noting the Zionism of anyone who comes to visit the reserve, as part of the character of the site. "Nadia and Yehudit are the engine which connects the entire state of Israel to it," said Fraenkel, addressing former Knesset Member Shuli Moalem Rafaeli. In the spirit of the pre-election period, she commented briefly: "Look at the audience here, we all want unity."

Fraenkel connected the planting of the trees on the reserve and the day of the boys' burial. "When we saw the movement of the hoe in the ground and how each one left the hoe to the next one in line, it's easy to think what comes to mind ... from the movement of the hoe, covering the grave at the cemetery, we come to this place to plant and build."

Fraenkel also spoke about her friend who told her a story about her son, who was three when the boys were kidnapped.

"One day her son came back from the kindergarten and said to her, 'We started to say Tefilat Haderech (a prayer for safety while traveling) in kindergarten so that that the three boys who got lost will return home.'"

"When the bitter news came, she didn't know what to say to him. But he returned from kindergarten and said, 'Stop saying Tefilat Haderech because they found the children. A year later he arrived at Oz Vegaon. He saw the picture of the boys and the mother realized that now she would have to explain to him. But then he said to her, 'I know why there are pictures of the children here - so that they will never get lost.'" The audience responded with great emotion to the story of the little boy.

Later, the participants went on a walking tour to the special observatory that was erected at the reserve in memory of Ari Fuld, which overlooks the Gush Etzion bloc and beyond.

The reserve was established on the night of the announcement of the murder of the three youths after 18 days of searching for them. The reserve was established and cultivated by volunteers and activists of the Women in Green movement. This came after dozens of years in which the site had become an area of crime, delinquency and even terrorism by Arabs of the nearby villages.

The reserve has been the focus of ethical, social and agricultural activities for many youth groups from all over the country and throughout the year since its establishment. The site also serves as a learning center which provides lessons on Jewish heritage to hundreds of women from Gush Etzion and Jerusalem.



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