Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sometimes Leadership is Thrust Upon Us

Racheli Frenkel is not your typical national leader. Usually, a leader develops gradually, gaining in stature and prominence with the passage of time. But occasionally, seemingly ordinary people are thrust by extraordinary circumstances onto the national stage, to be universally recognized for their leadership qualities, despite their previous anonymity. Racheli Frenkel is such a leader.

Rachel Sprecher Frenkel is a mother of seven from Nof Ayalon, a town overlooking the main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Having made Aliyah from the USA with her parents as a child, she spent six formative years at Ulpanat Bnei Akiva Tel Aviv, developing a deep commitment to the ideals of religious Zionism. After graduating high school and completing her National Service, Racheli went on to advanced Judaic studies, eventually receiving certification as a Yoetzet Halacha
(an advisor on matters related to Jewish law). She works as a teacher and halachic counselor for infertile couples.

Having a child snatched off the street is a common parental fear, although one with little basis in reality. However, when Racheli’s son Naftali became one of three Israeli teens who disappeared while hitchhiking home from school, such a nightmare became a reality. The Israeli teens were kidnapped on June 12, 2014 and killed shortly afterward. Their bodies were discovered 18 days later in a shallow grave in a field near Hebron.

As the three-week ordeal progressed, Racheli emerged as the spokesperson for the three distressed families, addressing the media in both Hebrew and English, and even travelling to New York to plead with the UN Human Rights Commission to intervene on behalf of their sons. “My son texted me saying that he’s on his way home — and then he was gone. Every mother’s nightmare is waiting and waiting endlessly for her child to come home,” Frenkel told the UNHRC.

Her eloquence and poise in the face of adversity inspired all Israelis to a level of national unity rarely seen. The missing boys became everyone's sons, and every citizen prayed for their safe return. In the words of songwriter Etzion Mayer:

“When I looked at Racheli, I felt like I wanted to cry and to tell her that I'm hurting - but it was she who found a way to give me strength, to give us all strength. We came to give her support and we left, ourselves, feeling strengthened – and all of that from parents who were dealing with the fact that their son was kidnapped, or perhaps already dead!”

When Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a teen from East Jerusalem, was murdered just hours after the funerals of her son Naftali, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, apparently in retaliation for the murders, Racheli Frankel got up from Shiva to make a public statement outside her home in Nof Ayalon, offering condolences to the victim’s family:

“Even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country... No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Muhammad’s parents.”

Frenkel added that the legacy of the three Israeli teens “is one of love, of humanity, of national unity, and of integrity. Alongside the pain of this terrible act, we take pride in our country’s zeal to investigate, to arrest the criminals and to stop the horror; and we hope that calm will return to the streets of our country.”

During the week of mourning, countless visitors came to the Frenkel home to console Racheli and her family. In the words of one visitor:

“We were mesmerized by her unshakable Emunah and grace. Rather than complain and express theological or political bitterness, Mrs. Frenkel became a role-model for us of the Simcha and the joy that she experiences living in Israel and being part of Klal Yisrael.”

Indeed, the leadership qualities Racheli developed in her youth remained hidden for years, waiting for the right moment and conditions to come shining forth.

Over the past 75 years, the Yeshivot and Ulpanot of the YBA network have produced over 80,000 graduates imbued with the commitment, ideals and fortitude needed to become leaders in Israeli society.