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Memorial promenade planned for three kidnapped boys

Naftali Frenkel, Giad Shaer, Eyal YifrahNEARLY A year after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, the community in which they lived is determined to transform the scene of their abduction into a place of safety and beauty.

Community leaders of Gush Etzion call their project “The Boys’ Promenade,” in memory of yeshiva students Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrah who on June 12, 2014, were kidnapped at a bus stop by Hamas terrorists posing as Israelis. The abductors murdered the youths within minutes.

Eighteen days later, the boys’ bodies were found near Hebron, ending a painful search that involved hundreds of Gush Etzion residents, military and police personnel.

Shani Abrams Simkovitz, who lives in Gush Etzion, remembers those 18 traumatic days all too well, she told the Intermountain Jewish News in an interview last week.

Simkovitz, executive director of the Gush Etzion Foundation, was in Denver to raise funds for the promenade and other projects in Gush Etzion. Her stop here was part of a national tour sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, which declared its support for the project.

“They went off the road,” Simkovitz says of the terrorists and their victims, “they used their guns and they killed them.”

The chilling starkness of her words belies her memories of the Gush Etzion residents who gathered for exhaustive searches for the teens, for communal prayers on their behalf, for mutual support — a collective experience that ironically unified the people who live in the area and Jews around the world.

Simkovitz relates how the mothers of the slain teenagers made a film afterward, explaining how touched they were by the unity their shared tragedy brought to the people of Israel, and how pleased they would be if that spirit continued.

“So the regional council decided they would make a path in the place where they were kidnapped, to do a sort of promenade that would be in their memory,” Simkovitz says.

“Along the path, people could look at the beautiful scenery. You can see the Mediterranean from there, and we hope to add some beautiful gardens and benches and observation posts along the way.”

Along the pedestrian and bicycle pathway, which will be nearly a mile long, there will also be a memorial for Shaer, Frenkel and Yifrah, she adds, although its precise design has yet to be determined.

Plans are for the pathway, or promenade, to begin at the main junction of Gush Etzion (the location of the bus stop where the boys were kidnapped), pass by a historic kibbutz named Kfar Etzion, the famed “Lone Oak” (a 600-year old tree that serves as the symbol for the region) and end at Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim, where the boys were students.

The projected cost of the promenade is 4 million shekels, just over $1 million. About half of that has already been provided from governmental agencies in Israel. The remainder is being raised by the Gush Etzion Foundation with the support of JNF.

In addition to the aesthetic considerations of trees, plants and a memorial, the pathway will be provided with lights, enhancing the security for those who walk along it, Simkovitz adds.

Once completed, Gush Etzion residents hope to use the pathway on every anniversary of the boys’ burial for a memorial walk.

GUSH ETZION is a settlement of some 22 Jewish communities, located between Jerusalem and Hebron, outside Israel’s 1967 border yet within its 1947 boundary, in an area that some call the West Bank and others — including those from Gush Etzion itself — prefer to call Judea and Samaria.

Approximately 85,000 people live there.

“It has a Biblical history and it has a modern history,” Simkovitz says.

The area is mentioned as early as the Book of Genesis, when it was referred to as Migdal Eder. Abraham is said to have walked from here to Mt. Moriah, in the company of his son Isaac, and both Jacob and Bar Kochba are associated with the locale.

The site of King Herod’s summer palace and tomb, recently discovered and still being excavated, is practically in her backyard, says Simkovitz, an American Jew who has lived in Israel since 1973.

During Israel’s War of Independence, the region fell under the control of Transjordan after bitter fighting, including a last stand battle late in the war, in which as many as 200 Jewish soldiers and civilians were massacred by troops of the Arab Legion.

Another project of the Gush Etzion Foundation is an expansion of the museum commemorating that heroic resistance in 1948. The $3.5 million project, also being supported by JNF, is very close to its fundraising goal, says Simkovitz, who hopes soon to announce a significant gift from a Denver donor.

The museum project, incorporating a new building, multimedia technology and a movie detailing Gush Etzion’s role in the War of Independence, will expand the museum into a regional visitor center.

SINCE BEING rebuilt by Israel in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967, Gush Etzion has grown significantly, although it has yet to see a respite from controversy.

While the Israeli government has encouraged Jewish settlement there for decades, nearby Palestinians and much of the international community consider Jewish settlement there to be illegal.

Terrorist attacks, including last summer’s kidnapping and murder of the three youths, are not infrequent in the Gush Etzion region.

Late last year, a terrorist murdered Dalia Lemkus, a relative of Denver’s Kopinsky family, at the same junction in Gush Etzion where the teens were kidnapped.

Just last week, an Arab driver injured four Israelis when he drove his car into a bus stop, an incident that Israeli authorities described as a terrorist attack.

While not denying that tensions exist in Gush Etzion, Simkovitz says that few who don’t live there are aware that Jews and Palestinians get along very well for the most part, and cooperate on a range of community projects.

“There is coexistence that you don’t hear about,” Simkovitz says. “J Street talks about what’s bad about what the Jews do to the Arabs, and if you ask the Arabs it’s entirely different. We get along very well with our neighbors.”

Another misconception about the region is that it is populated by religious Zionist fanatics whose determination to live in Judea and Samaria is entirely inspired by Biblical beliefs about a Jewish homeland.

While virtually all residents are Zionists, Simkovitz says — “You can’t live in Gush Etzion and not be a Zionist,” she says — most, including herself, fall into the modern Orthodox or secular category.

Members of the extremist settlement movement are a fairly small minority in Gush Etzion.

Whatever inaccurate perceptions Americans, including American Jews, might have about Gush Etzion, she adds, it hasn’t significantly hurt the Gush Etzion Foundation’s fundraising efforts, either for the Boys’ Promenade or the museum-visitor center.

This is true, Simkovitz says, despite the fact that most of her supporters so far have been longtime JNF supporters, who tend to be Reform and Conservative Jews, who might be expected to have more liberal leanings.

Simkovitz says she and her fellow Gush Etzion residents are very grateful for JNF’s support of the pathway project in particular, and for any additional support that American Jews can provide.

“We find it an honor,” she says, “to be able to do this project to memorialize these boys.”

For information on these joint Gush Etzion Foundation-Jewish National Fund projects: 1-800-705-1626.

Chris Leppek may be reached at IJNEWS@aol.com.

Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com


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