I begin with words of condolences to the family of Aharon Sofer, of blessed memory, the yeshiva student from New Jersey whose body was found in the Jerusalem Forest.
The family has been a pillar of strength and faith throughout this most challenging and tragic of ordeals. May God comfort them among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Last Sunday, two days after Aharon disappeared, I first became involved in this terrible tragedy. I was in continuous contact with the police and search teams. They made it clear that they had no clues and therefore all options were open ranging from a terrorist kidnapping to a deliberate disappearance.
While all options remained possibilities, emphasis was placed on the fact that there were no indications of a kidnapping or act of terror. Experts in the field explained that when terrorists strike, information comes in – sometimes as a trickle and sometimes as a flood – which guides and instructs investigators, security personnel, and government leaders. In this case there was nothing. A deafening silence.
This reality made the angry phone calls and e-mails my staff and I received –communications replete with criticism for our handling of the case – difficult to experience.
Just a few examples: “Israeli officials don’t care about Aharon because he is haredi.” “This case is not being taken seriously because he is American.” “Why isn’t Aharon’s plight garnering the same attention as the three kidnapped boys?” “We know the government plans to allow Aharon to remain in captivity because rescuing him could hinder efforts to reach a truce with Hamas.”
These accusations were, unfortunately, made by some politicians in America. They were also fueled by reported declarations from rabbinic figures suggesting that Aharon was alive in an Arab village and by an outright claim by an American rabbi that Aharon’s hiking partner was being tortured by Israel police.
It was very difficult to hear all this while I knew that the police and all authorities were doing everything in their power to find Aharon and that the parents and others who were close to the search and investigation knew that too.
The hysteria was certainly based on emotions and desperation over the mystery. But listening to the tone and reading the strong words thrown my way, there was something else at work, and therein lies a sad reality.
The suggestion that Israeli authorities would not do everything in their power to bring Aharon home safely because he was haredi or because he was not an Israeli soldier demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding regarding where things stand in the state of Israel today.
Mainstream secular Israelis do not hate haredim. Mainstream secular Israelis do not hate religion. A Jew is a Jew. Israeli authorities and leaders view themselves as responsible for every Jew, everywhere, and all Israelis care for the welfare of every Jew, everywhere.
It is my hope and prayer that this message and lesson will emerge from this tragedy. There is no “us” and “them” when it comes to the Jewish people – especially in the state of Israel. What greater picture demonstrates this point than secular and religious Jews braving the summer sun and difficult terrain side by side to search for Aharon? Thousands of “secular” Israelis heeded Mrs. Sofer’s plea that we recite the second chapter of Tehillim as a merit for Aharon. This is the essence of what it means to be one nation with one heart.
The sooner that all segments of our community internalize this reality, the better off we will be as a state and as a people.
May the unity that will hopefully emerge from this realization be a merit to Aharon Sofer’s soul.