At 13, Gilad Falkenstein likes to hang out on Facebook and talk to his friends in the evenings after school. But for the West Orange resident, the subject is nearly always the same: Gilad Shalit.
Since returning from Israel at the end of the summer, Gilad Falkenstein has been selling T-shirts and raising money for the family of the Israeli soldier who has been a captive of Hamas since June 2006.
Already, he has raised $1,600, which will go to the Shalit family to help with their efforts to free their son.
Asked why he cares so much, he says that while he shares a first name with Shalit, he hopes never to share his fate.
The Falkenstein family has spent every summer in Israel since Gilad was an infant. This June, they plan to make aliya.
“In five years I’m going to be a soldier. This could be me,” he said. “I want the Israeli government to do something.”
Gilad spent a large portion of this past summer at the Gilad Shalit protest tent, set up by the soldier’s parents in Jerusalem near the Prime Minister’s Office over two years ago.
He handed out ribbons, buttons, and posters to passers-by and occasionally spoke with tourist groups. Inside the tent there is always one unoccupied chair, reserved for Gilad Shalit, he said.
The eighth-grader at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston celebrated his bar mitzva in Israel during the summer — and marked Shalit’s birthday in the tent. Shalit’s mother commented on the many yellow balloons that decorated the tent for the occasion, and worried they made it look too festive.
“Don’t you get it?” Gilad’s mother, Aynat Libman, said she told her, explaining that because of the juxtaposition of the ornaments and the purpose of the tent, “you feel his absence.”
Libman has long been active in advocacy on behalf of Shalit, she said, and their apartment near the tent often served as a kind of bed-and-breakfast for tent volunteers. She and other activists hope to establish a regional advocacy group for Shalit’s cause, envisioning the organization of rallies for Shalit and having his name raised at every significant meeting among international officials.
“I need to know that when I send my Gilad off [to the army], I will get him back,” she said.
Toward the end of the summer, thinking about his return to the States, Gilad decided he wanted to bring Shalit’s cause back with him, and spoke with Shalit’s father, who suggested he take 600 T-shirts to sell to raise funds.
Gilad has been selling the shirts for $10 each in his neighborhood, at his school, and through friends and contacts at yeshivas around the area, including the schools of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth and Yavneh Academy in Paramus. He’s looking for a volunteer to sell them at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange.
“I want to rally people,” he said. “I want to get more people involved. I want to get kids involved. I want to get the word out. The more people who know about this, the more power we will have.”
Gilad spoke at Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange on Oct. 9 during Shabbat services, and said he hopes to arrange other speaking engagements at area synagogues and day schools.