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The untold story of Josh Fattal

PHILADELPHIA (Jewish Exponent) — By now, the whole world knows the name and face of Joshua Fattal, the 29-year-old Elkins Park, Pa., native who spent 26 months in an Iranian prison before being reunited with his family last week in Oman and arriving back on U.S. soil on Sunday.

But one aspect of the story that has largely gone unreported is the fact that Fattal is Jewish.

Josh’s father, Jacob Fattal, was born in Iraq and moved to Israel before ultimately settling in the United States. Josh Fattal became a Bar Mitzvah at Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom.

It’s no accident that the Jewish side of the story has largely been kept under wraps, according to family friend Brian Gralnick and others familiar with the situation.

And it doesn’t take much imagination to guess the reasons why: The Iranian government is virulently anti-Israel and has a history of charging Jews with spying for Israel.

While it stands to reason that Fattal’s captors knew his religion or learned it during interrogations, his family did not want to take any chances and risk having information get out into the public sphere that could endanger their son even further.

And, since the families of the three captives worked so closely together, forming a united front, the idea was to keep the focus on three American citizens who were wrongly imprisoned, rather than single out one because of his Jewishness.

So, despite the fact that Laura Fattal appeared frequently in the media as she and the other families waged a public campaign for their children’s release, she and other family members declined to be interviewed by the Jewish Exponent. The family also rejected offers of several Jewish organizations to intervene.

The Jewish Exponent chose to refrain from reporting on the story altogether, let alone detail Fattal’s Jewish connection, until the hikers were freed.

“When it comes to someone’s physical safety, we’ll always err on the side of caution, even if it means suppressing such a dramatic and important story,” said Lisa Hostein, the Exponent’s executive editor.

Many of the details of the story are well known. Fattal, Shane Bauer and a third individual hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan, Sarah Shourd, were arrested in July 2009 by Iranian guards, after apparently inadvertently straying into Iranian territory. It is still far from clear exactly what transpired that day, whether the threesome had actually entered Iranian territory, whether they had been coaxed over by border guards or some other scenario. The three were charged with spying for the United States and sent to Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

Shourd, who was engaged to Bauer in prison, became ill and was released last year on $500,000, given by an anonymous party. Last month, the two remaining hikers were convicted and sentenced to an eight-year prison sentence.

The families “knew that they had to get sentenced,” said Gralnick, 32. “The tougher part was the end of Ramadan,” when the family had been led to believe — or at least was hoping — that he would be pardoned. “That was much more critical than the guilty verdict.”

Finally, on Sept. 21, nearly two weeks after a promise from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that they would be released on humanitarian grounds, the two were freed on $1 million bail together, flown to the capital of Oman and reunited with their families in a jubilant scene captured by cameras.

Shortly after their arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Sunday, Fattal and Bauer spoke out about their ordeal. They described how they spent most of their time together in a cell about the same size as a small moving van, denied a chance to exercise or even to receive letters from family.

“Many times — too many times — we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten, and there was nothing we could do to help them,” Fattal said during the news conference.

The two described themselves as hostages who were only held because they were from the United States. Bauer, a journalist and the more overtly political of the two, said that he and Fattal actually opposed American policies that are the source of the antagonism between the two nations. They said they were unsure if they had ever actually crossed the border — and may never know.

“We applaud the Iranian authorities for finally making the right decision regarding our case. But we want to be clear that they do not deserve undue credit for ending what they had no right and no justification to start in the first place,” said Fattal.

There is still much to learn about what happened during the past few years, some of it likely to come out as the families, and the hikers themselves, share more of their harrowing ordeal.

One significant piece of the story was how both Josh’s mother, Laura, a teacher, and his brother, Alex — a doctoral student in anthropology at Harvard University — put their respective lives completely on hold and threw all their efforts into Josh’s release while Laura’s husband, Jacob Fattal, continued to work in order to support the family.

Gralnick, a lifelong friend who had known Alex Fattal since pre-school, witnessed the physical and emotional toll that the uncertainty had on the Fattal family, heard the details of the family’s interactions with the U.S. State Department, the White House, the office of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Swiss diplomats and the attorney in Iran.

“There was a lot of frustration. They had no real leverage. Absolutely no leverage. They could only hope and pray that Iran would make a humanitarian gesture,” said Gralnick, who directs the Center for Social Responsibility at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and also serves as lay president of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network. (His involvement with the Fattal case was not related to his professional work at Federation.)

Another part of the story was just how many in the Elkins Park area and beyond were touched indirectly and directly by the plight of the Fattal family.

While no Jewish organizations became directly involved, plenty of Jews took it upon themselves to express support for the family in a number of ways.

Bernard Dishler, a family dentist and a longtime Jewish communal activist who was a leader in the Soviet Jewry movement, approached Laura Fattal on behalf of Federation to see if there was something the organization could do. She told him the help wasn’t needed — the family was in touch with all sorts of government officials — but she welcomed his individual support.

“When your kid is in that kind of situation, you don’t want to do anything to endanger him,” said Dishler, who attended a number of fundraisers and vigils.

Earlier this year on a Federation mission to Israel, Dishler met with the parents of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was abducted by Hamas in 2006. He said Laura Fattal herself once made a direct comparison between the plight of Shalit and that of her son and Bauer.

“She said Shalit is in such worse shape in terms of a chance of getting out. She has been an eternal optimist, she was never down about it,” said Dishler.

Others, including Fattal’s former classmates at Cheltenham High School, pitched in by helping to organize candlelight vigils, publicizing the hiker’s plight on Facebook and Twitter, and organizing fundraisers to help pay the families’ legal and travel expenses. For example, the Earth Bread + Brewery in Mount Airy created a “Free the Hikers” beer that raised $10,000 for the cause.

Rabbi Eliot Holin of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park had presided over the Bar Mitzvah of Josh Fattal when he was at Rodeph Shalom. He also reached out to the Fattal family, though he didn’t know them very well.

In the end, he decided to make a prayer for Fattal’s release a part of every Friday night service.

“We have been reciting their names in our weekly Erev Shabbat and Shabbat Misheberach prayers in the hope that our thoughts and prayers on their behalf would carry to their domain, and in the fervent hope that they would soon be reunited with their families and friends at home in America,” said the rabbi, who sent out a congregational email rejoicing at the release of the hikers last week.

This past Shabbat, he invited a member of the congregation to “sound the shofar as ‘the great shofar of freedom’ blast to announce their return home and our abundant joy for them, their families and ourselves.”

While being Jewish was part of who Fattal is, he thinks of himself as a citizen of the world, said Fattal’s longtime friend Joe Boxman, noting that his friend was an environmental activist who had traveled around the globe to countries such as India, South Africa, New Zealand, China and the Philippines.

“This transcended religion and transcended politics. It was really about what was right,” said the 29-year-old Boxman who, in 2009, was asked to help organize the first candlelight vigil.

It was two weeks before his wedding. He at first said no, but called a friend back several minutes later to say he was in. In the end, several hundred people attended the vigil, which took place at the Curtis Arboretum on a pitch-black night.

“I can say that today has been one of the happier days in a long, long time,” Boxman told the Exponent about an hour after Fattal and Bauer had landed in Oman and been reunited with their families. “The footage of him getting off the plane — that was one of the things I was waiting to see.”

Boxman said that Fattal is someone with a need to travel constantly and who has a belief in the overall goodness of people. He hopes this experience hasn’t fundamentally changed his friend’s character.

“There is a culture of fear out there about the Middle East and this, unfortunately, perpetuates that,” said Boxman. “A buddy of mine said to me a couple of minutes ago, ‘At least he’ll be close to home now.’ I hope he stays for a little while, but to have Josh not feeling free, to have Josh feeling bound and damaged — I want Josh to have the freedom to feel free.”

He’s kept the wedding invitation for his friend that never got sent and is conflicted about whether or not to give it to him. Will Fattal appreciate the gesture or will it remind him of all that he missed?

Gralnick, for his part, struggled over the past 26 months with how to provide comfort to his old friend and Josh’s brother, Alex Fattal. The two met in nursery school and attended Hebrew school and elementary school together, all the way up to Cheltenham High School.

Gralnick recalled taking Fattal out for Korean fried chicken, dragging him out on the clay courts for a few sets of tennis, or talking with him into the early morning hours when he took refuge at his home — anything to take Fattal’s mind, however briefly, away from the all-consuming reality.

“Everybody needs a respite, and to some degree that’s what I tried to provide Alex,” he said. “You really just don’t know what to say other than you just try and be there.”

Now that the worst is over, Gralnick is concerned the two hikers will suffer some form of post-traumatic stress disorder in the months ahead. He’s also uncertain how easily Alex Fattal will be able to resume life as normal and get back to his Ph.D. work in anthropology.

Gralnick was also just beginning to comprehend how his own life will look now that he won’t have Fattal’s captivity always in the back of his mind.

“I think they will want to get back to living their lives as best that they can,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to a big homecoming party. “They absolutely deserve nothing less than their freedom.”