As Israeli security forces continue their mission to locate and bring home three teenagers presumably kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in the West Bank on June 12, the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, like hundreds of other Jewish communities around the world, is uniting to do the only things it can to try to help: offering support and sending prayers.
On Sunday afternoon, June 15, Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of Poale Zedeck, got in touch with several other local Orthodox rabbis and organized a communal recitation of Psalms to be held that same evening at the Squirrel Hill synagogue.
With only a few hours notice, the synagogue was packed with more than 200 people praying for the safe return of Gilad Shaar, 16, Naftali Frenkel, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, the three yeshiva students who were abducted as they were hitchhiking home from school.
“As a community, unfortunately, it’s for tragedies that everyone in the Jewish community unites,” said Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, and one of the rabbis who helped organize the event. “But when we gather together as a community, and pray together as a community, we are vehicles for the blessings of Hashem.”
Yolkut and Rosenfeld joined with Rabbis Levi Langer of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, Shimon Silver of Young Israel of Pittsburgh and Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation in reaching out to their respective constituencies to spread the news of the prayer vigil.
“My sense was there was this palpable sense of needing to be connected during this very painful time,” Yolkut said. “We feel so helpless and pained, imagining what those boys are going through, and what their families are going through. It was special to see how many people are viscerally feeling this. It was a very powerful evening.”
The crowd that assembled ran the gamut from senior citizens to elementary school children, according to Yolkut.
The evening had a particular resonance for older children, he said, as they could particularly identify with the kidnapped victims.
“The idea of school children being taken away like this is terrifying,” he said. “The boys were targeted because they are us. They could have been our relatives. The terrorists took them for no other reason than these are Jewish children, so we need to pray as if they are our children.”
The gathering at Poale Zedeck included the recitation of six chapters of Psalms tied to the idea of people calling out to God for help and mercy while in the position of being trapped, said Yolkut.
“This is 3000 year-old religious poetry where people can see their own struggles and crises through the language of psalms,” he explained.
Yolkut added that he was “very proud of the community” for coming together on such short notice.
“This was really a no-brainer,” he said.
Prayers for the kidnapped teens are being included spontaneously at many events where Jews are assembled. Psalms even were recited for the boys prior to a Hillel Academy student/adult hockey game at Davis Park last week.
“There were 30 or 40 people in hockey gear saying Tehillim,” Yolkut said. “I think the community is reeling.”
Many congregations in the area have incorporated the recitation of Psalms or other special prayers for the boys into their daily and Shabbat services.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has called on the community to sign a letter of solidarity for the missing teens. An email that was disseminated last week asked people to visit bringbackourboys.net to send a personal message to the three families, and to share the letter through Facebook.
“We hope that the boys’ families find comfort in knowing that Jews throughout North America stand with them at this difficult time,” the Federation’s email stated.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)