Nearly 600 people gathered at the JCC in Squirrel Hill last week to mourn the deaths of Israeli teenagers Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, whose bodies were found more than two weeks after their disappearance near Hebron.
The July 2 memorial service, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, came two days after the teens’ bodies were discovered and just hours after their funerals in Israel. Skip Grinberg, chair of the Community Relations Council, emceed the event; Dr. Jerome Parness of Congregation Poale Zedeck and Young Israel led both the American and Israeli national anthems.
Youth representatives from the Diller Teen Fellows Program briefly described each victim and lit memorial candles. Adi Kerklies and Gili Gurvits, two of Pittsburgh’s Jewish Agency for Israel representatives, offered Hebrew prayers for the welfare of Israel, and Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah translated the prayer into English. Rabbi Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation, led the mourner’s kaddish, and Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills offered a closing prayer.
While many applauded the program’s brevity, Eylon Hochwald, a 15-year-old Israeli who is spending the summer in Pittsburgh, said she was looking for more of an in-depth treatment of the lives of the murdered teens.
For his part, Parness, who lyrically bookended the program while thematically donning a blue-and-white bowtie, similarly described the event as “much too short.”
But in providing an emotional outlet, the service fittingly set a somber tone, said Jared Stufflebeam, an 18-year-old Diller Teen Fellows junior counselor. Stufflebeam was selected to light a memorial candle in honor of Yifrach.
“It was very mind blowing to think that Eyal was [only] one year older than me,” Stufflebeam said.
Turning to the service, he added, “I thought it went really well. It was incredible how many people showed up to support a memorial for these three teens.”
Sarah Twerski of Squirrel Hill similarly described the program as “beautifully done, very respectful, very unifying.”
“We should do it in the future for good reasons, not just in times of sorrow,” she said.
Next week, Stufflebeam will travel to Israel to work with the Diller program as well as join Tochnit Shalem, a Young Judea gap-year offering that describes itself as an “exclusive nine-month post-high school coed yeshiva program for Torah-observant young adults who want to contribute to Israeli society.”
Twerski, who was one of the last to leave the memorial, said that she has hitchhiked and given rides to people at the very same bus stop in Israel where the three boys were abducted.
“My children live right near the yeshiva where the boys learned,” she added.
CRC Director Gregg Roman explained the service’s resonance as indicative of the shared bond between Jews in Pittsburgh and Israel.
It sent “a message from the diaspora to Israel that we stand with them” and provided “a forum for the community to remember these individuals,” said Roman. “When 600 people get together on less than 24-hours’ notice, it’s very powerful.”
(Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)