Four years after 3 Israeli yeshiva boys were kidnapped and killed, their families find a new normal

Iris Yifrach speaks at a June 2014 rally in Tel Aviv calling for her kidnapped son Eyal's safe return. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

JERUSALEM — It’s easy to spot Iris Yifrach as she walks through the crowds in a packed shopping mall in central Israel. And it’s not just because she’s wearing a bright yellow blouse and matching headscarf.

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.

The June 2014 abduction of three Israeli yeshiva teens in the West Bank sparked rallies in Jewish communities worldwide calling for their safe return. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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 Thursday 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 endures. 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. One parent wrote a best-selling memoir about mourning her son. Another found solace in video therapy. The sister of one of the boys went to the United States on a therapeutic bat mitzvah trip, thanks to an organization that assists Israeli victims of terrorism, OneFamily. Another sibling received support from that organization to attend a Jewish sleepaway camp in Canada and escape the tumult at home.

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. “At first OneFamily gave us these trips, and now we are taking them on our own because we feel they are so important. And 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 the Yifrachs, Shaers and Fraenkels has been complicated by the high-profile nature of the killings, making it difficult for them to retreat from the spotlight.

“It was overwhelming in the beginning. People came into our home immediately — the army, the police, relatives, friends and neighbors,” Yifrach recalled. “At first it was good to have people with us all the time, but then I couldn’t get any private space. I couldn’t even cry privately.”

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.

“I came to understand that I was subconsciously looking for Eyal in the other kids. That isn’t OK, and I work hard not to do that now,” Yifrach said. “Each of the kids has worked hard on defining their own identity separate from Eyal.”

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 kids who were named after him, Feb. 2, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Ofir Shaer also struggled with parenting issues 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 national and global Jewish unity that had been galvanized by the search for the teens.

“People want to hear and see these people, and this puts demands on their time with their family,” said Chantal Belzberg, co-founder of OneFamily. “It’s hard enough to be a high profile person — just imagine adding bereavement onto that.”

Shaer discovered he needed time for his own healing. Amid work, family and speaking engagements, he enrolled in a video therapy course for bereaved parents. Together with other fathers who lost sons to terror or in combat, Shaer said in interviews, he worked through his feelings about balancing his grief for Gil-ad with trying to be present for his daughters.

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. The organization also helped some of the parents with private English tutoring, which came in helpful on trips overseas.

For Racheli Fraenkel, healing came on the bat mitzvah trip that she and her daughter took to the U.S. in 2015. One of Yifrach’s daughters said the same of her experience at the Jewish sleepaway camp in Ontario.

Belzberg 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.)