Yael David had just emerged from her Spanish class Monday at Livingston High School when her cell phone began “uncontrollably vibrating from texts, notifications, and e-mails” about the impending release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
“My heart was beating fast,” she wrote in an e-mail to NJ Jewish News. “Just like Americans remember exactly where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and where they were during the 9/11 attacks, Jews around the world are beginning to speak about exactly where they were when they heard the news about Gilad Shalit.”
David — a senior who serves as president of the Jewish/Israeli Club at her school and as national mazkira, or president, of Young Judaea — had spent much of her adolescence campaigning for Shalit’s release. Last summer, she met with Noam Shalit, the soldier’s father, in Israel.
Across the region, activists like her greeted news of Shalit’s freedom with elation, relief, and concerns about the consequences of a deal that will also see the release of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Although David Lentz, chair of the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest NJ, called Oct. 18 “a joyous day for the people of Israel, Gilad’s parents, and all those who worked tirelessly for his release over the past five years,” he acknowledged that making the deal “was a difficult decision for the Israeli people, as many who will be freed have the blood of Israeli men, women, and children on their hands.”
Gabrielle Flaum, founder of SOS Free Our Soldiers, a high school advocacy program that advocated for Shalit’s freedom, said her “fight for Gilad’s freedom was not about politics, it wasn’t about the controversy surrounding a potential prisoner exchange; rather it was about freeing Gilad, a soldier who to me became a representative of the Israeli people and Israel’s fight for freedom.”
During Rachel Stern’s nine months in Israel as part of a Young Judaea program, she wrote an essay about Gilad Shalit for NJJN, which appeared in January 2009.
“At 18, I am only one year younger than Gilad was at the time of his abduction,” the Morristown High School student wrote at the time. “I can’t compare my occasional bouts of homesickness with his desolation. I can only imagine what he and his family must be going through.”
Nearly three years later, Stern said, she reacted joyfully as she checked the messages on the cellphone she had silenced during her Russian literature class at Tufts University.
“Everyone I know had it on their Facebook pages,” she told NJJN. “I think it’s great. It’s really exciting. My friends in Israel say it is great to be living there while it is happening now. Knowing that they all have to join the army and run the risk of being captured, it is hard to imagine Israel would not do everything in its power to get a soldier back,” she said in a cellphone interview.
The notion that the Israeli government has gone to such lengths to free Shalit has special resonance with four Israeli high school graduates who postponed their military service to spend a year living with members of the MetroWest Jewish community.
Known as “Rishonim,” the youth envoys visit schools and agencies under the auspices of the Legow Family Israel Program Center of MetroWest.
In their large cubicle on the Aidekman campus in Whippany on Monday, they rejoiced at Shalit’s impending release as they prepared English translations of a children’s book written by Shalit when he was 11 years old, When the Shark and the Fish First Met. It is the story of a fish and a shark who become best friends despite their natural differences.
“It is really great to know he will be back,” said Lior Tamir. “You can really learn from this about solidarity in the Israeli society. We all feel committed to the release of this one soldier.”
As he contemplates his military service when he returns home next year, Tamir said, the government’s negotiating for Shalit’s freedom “makes me feel more confident. The government takes care that we will be safe.”
“We are all happy to see him home,” said Amalia Hochmann. “All of the people in Israel are happy to have him come home. He is like our brother, our son. He is one of us.”
But Malka Goldberg, who said she had been spending at least 15 hours a week on the campus of the University of Maryland crusading for Shalit’s freedom, told NJJN, “I definitely have problems. I have been putting a lot of effort and free time in to the advocacy campaign, but at the same time when I read the names of the people being released and the crimes they committed, it is a little terrifying.”
Gilad Falkenstein, 14, upon his return to West Orange from a visit to Israel in the summer of 2010, plunged into activities to draw support for the release of the captured soldier whose name he shares. He raised thousands of dollars selling T-shirts calling for Shalit’s freedom.
Now living in Israel with his family, Gilad said that after making aliya, he continued his activities.
“When the deal came out I felt amazing,” he e-mailed NJJN the day of Shalit’s release. “After so long being in captivity, he finally gets to be with his family again. I haven’t been in such a good mood for a long time! I feel like a brick was just taken off my shoulders!
“When he was released today I was bawling,” said Gilad. “I couldn’t stop crying; it was for sure one of the biggest moments of my life.”
Joel L. Leibowitz, director of JNF’s Northeast Zone, based in Florham Park, sent a letter to supporters saying, “While we recognize the pain experienced by the families who lost loved ones at the hands of some of the terrorists released, we also honor the sacrifice of Gilad and his family.”
He added that JNF is offering to plant a tree in Israel for free in Shalit’s honor on behalf of supporters.