Last week I met Gilad Shalit.
The experience was surreal. Seeing the Israeli soldier who was taken captive by Hamas terrorists exactly 6 years ago last Monday – June 25, 2006 – left me speechless. On October 22, during Sukkot, after 5Â½ years in captivity, Gilad was released from the dungeon where he saw no sunlight, was separated from his family, and endured deplorable living conditions. The hug he shared with his father was felt around the world.
I never thought I would see Gilad reunited with his family, much less shake his hand.
Gilad has gained back all the weight he lost. Still, he is bony and slight. Despite his fame, his presence is modest. He is unassuming and quite shy. He is treated as a rock star in the Jewish world, but he seems uncomfortable with the recognition and fanfare that now surrounds him. He is a celebrity who never sought stardom.
Gilad shared only a few heartfelt and candid sentiments with the group, which was made up of about 100 people. His remarks included an admission that he was shocked that people who come from all corners of the world would recognize his face, care about his welfare, and advocate for him during his captivity. He was honest about the fact that it is all overwhelming – the crowds, the recognition, and the love that now surround him wherever he goes.
As I watched his innocent smile – still exactly the smile that was emblazoned on all the pictures at the entrance of every JCC, synagogue, and Jewish institution and on countless placards and T-shirts throughout Israel for the last five years – I realized that Gilad puts a name and a face to a value shared by the Jewish people. We often struggle to describe this value but we know it when we see, feel and sense it. Gilad’s face, name, and story are the embodiment of our people’s common and core cause. It is all about unity.
Gilad was right to be bewildered. After all, he did not go after fame. His parents did not yearn to sit a strange form of shiva in a protest tent outside the prime minister’s home for years, receiving visitors who brought food and searched for words of consolation and left in pain, silently thanking God it was someone else, not them, living this unspeakable nightmare. Gilad was the random soldier plucked from his post who reminded us that though we are a fractured, divided, bickering people, we are still one. When we are faced with the all-too-familiar situation that one of us is oppressed, afflicted, or imprisoned, we unite until we bring that prisoner home.
During the 1980s, just before the Cold War began to warm, we felt a similar feeling when the oppressed Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky was released from the gulag and crossed over from East to West Berlin and freedom. I was in seventh grade then, and I vividly remember listening to the school’s PA system as Shcharansky landed in Israel, greeted by diplomats and family. He kissed the ground. He finally was home. His unethical imprisonment and subsequent release was a watershed moment for Soviet Jewry, Israel’s future demographics, and the values that we hold dear. I have had the privilege of spending time with Natan Sharansky, as he soon became, on many occasions. I especially remember when my dad and I met him, just months after his release, when the UJA took him on tour. I’ve since met him many times in Israel and most recently at AIPAC’s policy conference this spring. Each time I see him, I think of the name, face, and role he represented for our people for decades. Sharansky is a special soul, and he has blossomed into a valued leader in Israel politics and civics. He also represents something greater than himself. He is a name and a face that has become synonymous with the ethic of Jewish unity and the value of coming home.
I brought my 8-year-old daughter with me to meet Gilad. She was familiar with his story and prayed for him daily while he was held hostage. Over the past two summers, she was a regular at the tent where Gilad’s parents sat vigil. Most importantly, she witnessed firsthand the most critical ethic of our people when she shook his hand – that our love for our fellow Jew knows no bounds.
Moses told Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Since then, we have not stopped advocating for our people, no matter what kind of Jews they are. The Shalit family is not particularly observant, at least not outwardly. Still, secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered and advocated for his release. Even a people and country divided spoke in unison for his release. The terms might have been debated, but all believed he had to come home.
Shlomi Kofman, Israel’s deputy counsel general to the United Nations, spoke directly to Gilad on Tuesday afternoon. She said, “Look around this room, Gilad. You do not recognize one face. No one else here bears the Shalit name. No one even resembles you. But, Gilad, you are encircled by family. This family that you have never known is much, much bigger than what you see here. It transcends borders, countries, gender, and background. You, Gilad, wherever you go, are reminded more than any other, that you always have family around you.”
Kofman’s words encapsulated what we all felt. He was saying to Gilad what Sharansky felt when he landed in Tel Aviv. Jewish unity trumps all. At least it should. As we find ourselves in the regular cycles of Jewish life, embroiled in the petty debates of denominationalism, topics that divide us, let us remember a core value that unites us. If we do, maybe those conversations won’t seem so loud to our ears and so hard on our emotions. Jewish unity trumps all.