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Four years after the murder of 3 Israeli boys, their families find a new normal

By Renee Ghert-Zand

JERUSALEM – It’s easy to spot Iris Yifrach as she walks through the crowds in a packed shopping mall in central Israel. Yifrach has been a public figure since June 2014, when her 19-year-old son, Eyal, was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in the West Bank.

For 18 days that month, Israel and Jewish communities worldwide were gripped by his June 12 disappearance along with two Jewish 16-year-olds, Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-ad Shaer, who went missing one night while hitchhiking home from their West Bank yeshiva. Israeli security forces and volunteers searched exhaustively for the three boys, and Jews around the world organized prayer rallies for them under the slogan #BringBackOurBoys. Ultimately, the teens’ bodies were found on June 30, 2014. They had been shot and killed the day they went missing, within minutes of entering their abductors’ car.

During the search, the families were interviewed exhaustively. The mothers flew to Geneva, Switzerland, to make an appeal to the UN Human Rights Council. Racheli Fraenkel, the only one among them who was fluent in English, became the face of the “Bring Our Boys Home” campaign in the international media. Almost overnight, the three families went from leading anonymous and private lives to being household names. Their sons’ joint funeral was televised live, and their shivas were public affairs.

Four years later, the pain and loss endure. But the boys’ family members also have established a new normal.

It’s not that they have left behind their trauma; they’ve been shaped by it.

For Iris Yifrach, traveling abroad – something she had never really done before her son’s murder – has been extremely therapeutic. Her family has taken several trips to Europe and America in the past four years.

“Spending time together has been very important. It’s like we’re finally getting to know one another,” she said. “We feel like we’ve gotten a big hug from American Jews.”

Israel has no shortage of families struggling to overcome the loss of loved ones to terrorism. But the healing process for these three families has been complicated by the high-profile nature of the killings.

“It was overwhelming in the beginning. People came into our home immediately – the army, the police, relatives, friends and neighbors,” Yifrach recalled.

A month after the funeral, the Yifrachs finally found themselves alone in their home in Elad, in central Israel.

“I saw his empty place at the Shabbat table, and that’s when it hit me,” Yifrach said. “I realized that we needed to do something to pick up the pieces.”

The family began psychotherapy. Yifrach, 47, and her husband, Uri, 49, continue to attend weekly couples therapy sessions. Yifrach says it has strengthened their marital bond. In addition, counseling has helped their six surviving children, now aged 7 to 24.

Ofir Shaer also struggled as he mourned his son Gil-ad. After the murder, he suddenly had new responsibilities in addition to trying to focus on his surviving five daughters. He spent a lot of time on the Memorial Foundation for the Three Boys, which the families established to advance the global Jewish unity that had been galvanized by the search for the teens.

Shaer discovered he needed time for his own healing. He enrolled in a video therapy course for bereaved parents. His wife, Bat-Galim, found writing therapeutic. Last fall, she published a memoir of her first year of mourning that would become a best-seller. It included pages from her late son’s diary, which had been recovered from the terrorists’ burned car and returned to the family 10 months after the murder.

Meanwhile, the siblings of the murdered teens joined support networks like the youth division of OneFamily, which organizes outings, support groups, weekends and overnight camps for family members of terror victims.

Chantal Belzberg, co-founder of OneFamily, said it’s important to listen to the needs of bereaved families rather than offer one-size-fits-all therapy. OneFamily, which she founded along with her husband, Marc, in 2001 following a terrorist attack at a Sbarro pizza shop in Jerusalem, offers terror victims and their families services ranging from individual counseling, support groups, youth programs and camps to financial, legal and bureaucratic assistance. The group paid for some of the overseas trips by the three families because OneFamily considered the vacations essential to the healing process.

Bereaved families need support even years after their initial trauma, Belzberg said.

“We are currently looking after 2,800 families, each consisting of four to five people,” she said. “We want families to eventually stand on their own two feet, but we never say goodbye to them. We are with them as long as they need us.”

Yifrach says the most important thing she has learned since Eyal’s murder is that suffering is not itself a virtue.

“If we suffer, it won’t bring him back,” she said. “We’ve decided to choose life.”

This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with OneFamily, the leading organization rebuilding, rehabilitating and reintegrating the lives of Israel’s victims of war and terrorism. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.

CAP: Bat-Galim and Ofir Shaer, left, the parents of slain Israeli teenager Gil-ad Shaer, plant trees in memory of their son at a West Bank kibbutz with children who were named after him, Feb. 2, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

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