The Fifth Son Project
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The Fifth Son Project

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From left, Eric Tepper, Tali Elias, Ezra Gontownik, and Michaela Elias display cards to be read at the seder to call attention to the plight of Gilad Shalit and other captive soldiers. Aaron Keigher

Pesach is fast approaching and right about now Jews around the world are overwhelmed with gathering recipes, shopping, cooking, and cleaning. In the midst of all these preparations, it is easy lose sight of the true message of Pesach: the importance of redemption.

The seder is not meant to be a history lesson. Rather, it represents a guide of how to live in the present. In the haggadah, Jews are commanded to view themselves as if they had actually been redeemed from Egypt. They are supposed to identify with the suffering of their forefathers in bondage, but it doesn’t end there. To truly internalize this commandment is to realize its modern application.

It is precisely for this reason that a group of high school students in New Jersey is working to make the redemption of captives a Pesach priority. They have created an organization, StudentsUnite4Israel.org, as a vehicle for Israel advocacy and have launched the Gilad Shalit-Fifth Son Project as their first major initiative. Gilad Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas four and a half years ago and has been held at an undisclosed location and denied contact with his family, the Red Cross, or any other humanitarian agency.

Most have heard the story of the Four Sons in the haggadah. The tradition of the Fifth Son is that he is the one who is denied his freedom and therefore is not able to attend the seder at all. In 2011, Gilad Shalit represents a Fifth Son.

“The purpose of the Gilad Shalit-Fifth Son Project is to show the world that every Jew is a part of our family; they will never be forgotten, and as Jews, we will put in all of our strength and ability in order to bring about the safe return of every absent fifth child,” said Ezra Gontownik, a sophomore at The Frisch School in Paramus who co-founded StudentsUnite4Israel with Frisch junior Eric Tepper and who serves as a coordinator of The Fifth Son Project.

The goal of the project is to include Gilad, if not physically, then at least symbolically at seder tables across the country, as well as in Israel and Europe. To accomplish this, StudentsUnite4Israel.org has printed more than 10,000 oversized postcards with Gilad’s story and a blessing to be recited for Gilad and the other missing Israeli soldiers.

The cards are to be read at Passover seder tables around the globe. When the day comes that Gilad Shalit is redeemed, these cards are intended to remain part of a family’s seder tradition, allowing future generations, we hope, to hear the story of how Jews in the year 2011 came together and accomplished Shalit’s redemption. (Upon his release, the Gilad Shalit/ Fifth Son Project plans on printing stickers with the release date to be affixed to the cards.) In the event that Shalit is not released in the near future, the cards will continue to be read at seder tables in years to come to ensure that he is included and is never forgotten.

Minister of Public Diplomacy and diaspora Affairs MK Yuli Edelstein, himself a former prisoner of conscience, has praised the Gilad Shalit Fifth Son project as “a wonderful example” of “efforts to raise and maintain public awareness of Gilad Shalit’s plight.” Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) ordered 1,000 cards to distribute to her constituents. When she appeared at Frisch to give a lecture, Berkley recorded a video praising StudentsUnite4Israel and The Fifth Son Project, saying, “I can’t think of an organization more important to the future of the Jewish people than StudentsUnite4Israel.”

High schools in the Greater New York area, as well as high schools in Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Houston, and Memphis, are participating in the project.

In addition, students attending Pesach programs at hotels across the country, as well as in Israel and Capri, Italy, have signed on to distribute cards at their communal hotel seders.

Others have offered to send e-mail versions of the card. Eric Goldberg of Naomi Catering in Jerusalem will be sending cards on-line to the approximately 13,000 homes around the world that regularly receive his culinary blog.

“At our seder, in accordance with Sephardi tradition, we circle the table carrying matzoh in a sack in order to reenact the historical redemption from Egypt,” said Tali Elias, a sophomore at Frisch and a co-coordinator of The Fifth Son Project. “But what more concrete way to solidify this timeless message than to actually work in the present to redeem a fellow Jew?”

Ezra Gontownik sees the project as having far-reaching and profound effects. “It says in the Talmud Sanhedrin that saving one life is like saving the whole world. And there could not be a more relevant time to act on behalf of Gilad Shalit than now,” he said.

While the organizers of The Fifth Son Project pray that Gilad Shalit will be with his family this Passover, they know that even if he is not released in time for this to happen, at least through the efforts of StudentsUnite4Israel his presence will be felt at seder tables around the world.

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