On Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went on Israeli television to announce that a deal had been signed that morning with Hamas for the release of Gilad Shalit. The Israeli army sergeant has been held captive after being kidnapped by Hamas-associated gunmen in 2006.
Netanyahu said that Shalit could be returned home "within days." News reports say his release is not likely until early November at the earliest.
Israel’s cabinet was to met late Tuesday to approve the deal. Media reports indicate that as many as a thousand Palestinian prisoners may be involved in the exchange.
In the past, such a prisoner swap was the sticking point in winning Shalit’s release because Hamas insisted on including terrorists responsible for some of the deadliest attacks on the Jewish state.
Reportedly, Egypt helped to broker the deal in secret meetings that concluded last Thursday.
Local rabbis expressed joy on hearing of Shalit’s possible release, but acknowledged the difficulty the Israeli government faces in exchanging the young soldier for hundreds of Hamas prisoners.
"Israel is a country that places a high value on life, and a soldier in Israel is your neighbor’s son," said Rabbi David Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. "Thank God he can return to his family," he said. Still, "I’ll only relax when he actually gets home."
"This was one soldier whose name is known throughout the Jewish world," said Fine. "The Jewish people didn’t give up on him. It speaks to our sense of community as a people."
Robert Scheinberg, rabbi of United Synagogue of Hoboken, said he "hoped and prayed there would be a way to have him be released in a way the Israeli leadership and public would feel does not compromise Israel’s security. I pray that this is that deal." Still, he said, "We’ve been in this place before so, very sadly, I’m not holding my breath."
On the issue of prisoner exchange, Scheinberg said, "I could not even begin to contemplate the moral calculus involved in making decisions like this."
He indicated that while he usually subscribes to The New York Times only on weekends, immediately after hanging up the phone he planned to renew his weekday subscription.
"This is not a story I want to be brewing and not have access to it for a three-day yom tov."
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Ahavath Torah said he would "rejoice" at the possibility of Shalit’s release. "I would talk about it on the holidays and celebrate," he said. "The possibility of his being reunited with his family is beyond words."
Goldin pointed out that the issue of prisoner exchange is extremely complex.
"One of the earliest rabbinic edicts recorded in the Mishnah is that you’re not supposed to redeem captives for more than they’re worth," he said. While the community is obligated to go to great lengths to redeem captives, he said, there was a recognition by the Rabbis that such releases must be thought through very carefully.
"You can’t obligate the community beyond the appropriate measure," he noted, adding that the discussion of the issue in the Mishnah shows how far back the problem goes in our tradition. "It shows that history hasn’t changed."
The decision on prisoner exchange rests solely with the Israeli government, he said, "and I will support whatever decision they make."
Ben Shull, rabbi of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, said his congregation "regularly offers prayers for his release as part of our mishebeyrach for those who are ill." In addition, he said, there is a poster in his congregation raising awareness of Shalit’s plight.
"His story is compelling and heart-wrenching and we can only imagine what he’s going through and the heartache of his family," he said. "If he’s returned to his family, there will be joy and relief in the Jewish community."
Still, said Shull, the situation brings up other feelings, as well.
"I’m concerned about murderers being released, with the possibility that they can murder again," he said. "It’s always been an issue. But my personal feeling is that Jews, and particularly Israelis, would support such a deal."
Some people, he said, argue that such prisoner releases give "extra incentives" to murderers. "But they don’t need extra incentives," he said. "They [already] do their best to kill and maim when have the opportunity."
As a result, even though the situation is "unequal, unfair, and infuriating, it’s better that we get back a living soul, even if there is a risk."
Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes said members of her congregation visited the Shalit family as part of a congregational trip to Israel last February.
"I spoke with his mother and said that so many of us here are offering weekly prayers," she said. "I’m thrilled at the possibility of his release."
On the exchange of prisoners, Frishman said, "That’s how Israel has always had to bargain for the release of its sons and daughters."
She suggested that one reason the exchange did not take place sooner was that Israel was concerned about releasing political prisoners who are terrorists.
"Not all are," she said. "I’m hoping [Netanyahu] is comfortable now because he doesn’t feel there’s imminent danger from these particular prisoners."
Shammai Engelmayer, rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center/Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park, also said that releasing terrorists and would-be terrorists is problematic, but agreed that Israel had no other choice. Engelmayer, who also is interim editor of The Jewish Standard, added that he was concerned, as well, for what Shalit’s release will mean for Israel’s other MIAs.
Three Israeli soldiers went missing in Lebanon in June 1982, and there has been no contact since. Flyer Ron Arad was captured in Lebanon in 1986; there has been no contact since 1987, but there have been conflicting reports about whether he died in captivity. A fifth soldier, Guy Chever, was last seen at his base in the Golan Heights in August 1997; there has been no contact.
"We’ve focused so long on one MIA, Gilad Shalit, to the exclusion of the others," Engelmayer said. "I hope that his release, if it actually occurs, will put the spotlight back on the others, not shut it off completely."
A similar concern was expressed by Avi A. Lewinson, executive director of the JCC on the Palisades. Lewinson said he was thinking about Shalit on Yom Kippur and wondering if he was still alive.
"To hear that this is happening is certainly a blessing," he said. "My heart also goes out to the other families that have people who have been in captivity even longer. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes only a matter of returning a body, but even that is better than never hearing."
Shalit has been a constant presence for Lewinson. Posters bearing the captured sergeant’s image and calling for his release have been up in the JCCOTP’s lobby and hallway for years.
"I’m thrilled there’s a possibility that he will be released," said Lewinson. "Unfortunately, in the past there have been times when it has been close and it didn’t happen. I hope and pray this time it actually does happen and it comes to fruition and he is actually freed."
Lewinson added, "If it actually does happen, I’ve already been on the phone with Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, to do some sort of a welcome-home program."