Free at Last

Yesterday morning we awoke to the wonderful news that Gilad Shalit was reunited with his family after his release by his Hamas captors in Gaza, ending five years and four months in captivity. In an early interview, Shalit, who is reported to be in good health yet looked very thin, said he was treated well by his captors but that he missed family, friends and freedom. After meeting with Israel Defense Force officials and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shalit was met by family members, and stirring images of him embracing his father, Noam, were broadcast throughout the world.

Shalit's release came as Israel began transferring 477 Palestinian prisoners to the Red Cross as part of a “swap deal” between Israel and Hamas that will see the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. This “swap,” however, is not without differing opinions on all sides.

An editorial in the Jerusalem Post noted, "This collective willingness to expose ourselves to the risk of a future terrorist attack, if necessary, to secure Shalit's release speaks volumes about Israelis' strong sense that we are all in this Zionist project together, in good times and in bad…It's not that we are insensitive to the feelings of past terrorist victims' families and loved ones. Nor are we unaware that many, even most, of those who will be released will return to violent terrorism. It's just that none of these potential future dangers seems to be able to trump the fact that right now an Israeli soldier's life is being saved."

There was an incredible public awareness campaign for years that captured the attention of all Israelis (and Jews around the world) in regard to bringing Gilad Shalit home. In many ways, as we saw on TV, the country truly wore its heart on its sleeve.

On a separate note, last month I received a moving letter from a thirty-something gentleman, let’s call him “John,” who is currently serving time in an Oregon state penitentiary. John described his Jewish upbringing in the Conservative movement and his desire to reengage with the Jewish community once he is paroled next year. He shared, “I want to be involved with the Jewish community in the Portland area once I am out. Prison can make a man reflect on all facets of his life and bring the important things to the fore.”

John, in his youth, had dreams of one day joining the diplomatic corps as a Foreign Service officer. Unfortunately, as he explained, he made major mistakes along the way. He realizes he will have difficulty in finding a new job once released, but is most excited about reuniting with his daughter with whom he wishes to develop a stronger relationship.

John’s letter was seeking ways for the Jewish community to help him find housing once he is out of prison and ways to get reacquainted with the Jewish community. He has spent over a decade in prison living a kosher/Shabbat observant life -- which he plans to continue. I shared John’s letter with several rabbis in our community and I am truly grateful for their outreach and support for John, both now and in the future.

In no way am I comparing the circumstances and situations of Gilad and John, yet I realize each is facing a challenging reentry into the (Jewish) world. In each case, how will we open our arms, embrace these individuals, and provide them with a “soft landing” back into the Jewish and daily world we live in?

We are now at the conclusion of Sukkot -- my favorite Jewish holiday. In fact, due to the beautiful weather (albeit cold temperatures at night) I spent the past three nights sleeping in our sukkah with my 8-year old son. Each night, as we snuggled under the blankets, we talked about school, things happening at my work, and the clear starry skies. As I shared the story about Gilad Shalit’s release, my son questioned why Israel would return so many prisoners (especially, as he noted to me, when “it is possible many may become bad guys again”) in exchange for one person. I shared with him one of the great principles of Judaism, kol yisrael arevim ze la ze, all Jews are responsible one for another. He pondered for a moment, stared at me and said, “Daddy, I love being Jewish and I love you.”

In some ways, I romantically imagine that is what was in Gilad’s mind when he embraced his father after his release.

Chag sameach and early wishes for a Shabbat Shalom.



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