JERUSALEM — Only hours after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport and following a last-minute itinerary change, I found myself at Beit Hanassi — the President’s Residence — in Jerusalem on June 3.
Thanks to a photographer friend with excellent connections and a government-issued press card, I was invited to attend the ceremony at Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s residence for the first annual Jerusalem Unity Prize. The event was held one year to the day that three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar, were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists while trying to hitchhike a ride home.
The Jerusalem Unity Prize is a joint initiative among the three boys’ families together with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Gesher, an organization that seeks to bridge the gaps between different segments of Israeli society. The award acknowledges the efforts of organizations and individuals in Israel and the Diaspora who actively work to advance unity throughout Israeli society and the Jewish world. Applicants must prove how their actions advance “mutual respect for others amongst the Jewish people.”
Recipients for the prize’s inaugural year were Chabad House in Bangkok, Thailand, operated by Rabbi Nechemya Wilhelm and Nechama Wilhelm, which for the past 20 years has served as a haven for Jewish backpackers from Israel and around the world, and Nifgashim BeShvil Yisrael, an organization founded by Raya and Yossi Ofner to memorialize their son Avi, a soldier who was killed in a military helicopter tragedy in 1997. It organizes an annual hike along Israel’s National Trail to bring together people from diverse backgrounds.
Civilians honored were Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Ram Shmueli, who promotes cooperation between social and educational organizations and groups in the business and public sectors, and Rabbi David Menachem, who promotes the idea that the power of music can help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An impressive lineup of dignitaries was present at the ceremony, including Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi, and the parents of the three murdered boys, including Rachel Frenkel, who spoke movingly about her desire to create unity within the Jewish people.
“V’ahavta l’reicha kamocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”), Frenkel told those assembled in the residence’s garden. “However different we may be and will be and are diverse, we here have a shared future, a good one.”
“For a moment we were one big family,” Rivlin said, referring to the time after the boys first went missing. “The Israeli people come together in strength in times of crisis.”
He then asked: “Ladies and gentlemen, is this really the only way, to come together in times of trouble? I want to believe there is an alternative.”
“I see here the best and most beautiful of our people,” Rivlin said. “I am convinced that with the recipients, we can take the unity from the times of crisis and follow it each and every day in our lives.”
So it was with much dismay that only a week after the Unity Prize ceremony, I learned that an upcoming ceremony for bar mitzva boys with special needs that Rivlin had offered to host at the residence was put on hold, reportedly due to disagreements over who would officiate (the ceremony was to be held under the auspices of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement).
The b’nei mitzva ceremony had already been cancelled in the city of Rehovot after that city’s ultra-Orthodox mayor learned it would be held at a non-Orthodox synagogue. By last week, accusations flew between the President’s Office and the Masorti movement over who was to blame for the latest impasse. The Masorti movement asserted that the service was to be co-officiated by an Orthodox and a Masorti rabbi but that an official announcement omitted the name of the non-Orthodox rabbi.
A statement issued by the President’s Office at the time noted that the invitation “still stands,” but that “unfortunately, religious figures seeking to advance their agenda through the cynical use of children refused to respond to every framework proposed by the President’s Office, and we are saddened by this approach.”
As of press time, a spokesman for Rivlin, Jason Pearlman, said his office was not making further comment.
Rivlin has acted and spoken forcefully about coexistence in Israel and about curing the “disease” of anti-Arab racism. A leader who has done so much to bring together different segments of Israeli society in “mutual respect” should also find a creative way to solve this dispute — in the name of ahdut, unity.