“How are You, Racheli?”: A Poignant Interview with Racheli Frankel
(The following is a translated excerpt from the article Kinat Racheli by Sari Makover-Balikov which appeared this past Friday in Yediot Achronot)
At the beginning of the year, a strange dog suddenly appeared at the Frankel home.
Racheli remembers that the veterinarian warned them that he had an aggressive nature, but her seven children became extremely attached to him, named him “Opeh,” and decided he was nice. Last July, shortly before lighting struck her world, she went out with the dog to the green fields surrounding Nof Ayalon. “I drove and Opeh ran beside the car,” she remembers. “Then suddenly he stood up straight by the window and beat it with his paws. I told him, ‘Hey, you didn’t get your exercise yet’ but he insisted on coming inside, and then he suddenly turned towards the fields and disappeared. We searched for him that entire night in every crevice and along every path that leads to our community. The children put up dozens of signs with his photo, but the dog had disappeared without a trace.”
Exactly a month later, her Naftali also disappeared without a trace. “And when I told the children, each one in accordance with his or her age, the little ones began to cry and said to me, “Naftali got lost and won’t come back, just like Opeh got lost and didn’t come back”—she says with the smile that hides a scream—which appears on her face again and again throughout our interview. “It was strange, because before that I had no idea what the expression “To disappear without a trace” meant, and suddenly it was connected so tangibly to Naftali, not only for the children, but for me as well.”
Interviewer: Many people have claimed that it was in the kidnapping’s merit that the threat of the terror tunnels was discovered.
Racheli: “People told us, ‘Your children are tsaddikim, in their merit we were saved from a huge catastrophe.’ And I don’t argue about the national context, because something happened that shook everything up and brought about a far-reaching military operation. But my son was not a tsaddik. He was a child. A wonderful 16-year-old, talented and successful and smart, who knew how to pray and I miss him terribly. I miss him so much. But he was a normal kid. Fought with his sisters, played basketball, and played the guitar and recorder.”
The religious community of Nof Ayalon is quiet and calm. Brightly-colored roses by the entrance to the Frankel’s home hide an inexpensive basketball hoop which the brothers and sisters set up in Naftali’s memory. “This is their therapy,” their mother smiles. She is an effervescent busy bee, 45-years-old, a yoetset halacha who teaches gemara and halacha at women’s institutions such as “Nishmat” and “Matan.” She is a graduate of Nishmat’s program which has trained around 80 women to answer intimate questions related to the laws of family purity. Her husband Avi is a Chief Superintendent in the Israeli police, and they have brought to the world 7 children: their firstborn Tzvi Amitai (19), their second Naftali z”l, Ayala (14), Avigail (11), Noga (9), Naama (6), and Shlomo (4).
Naama draws a picture of her brother in a notebook. “My teacher said that if I remember Naftali, I should simply write about him,” she tells me.
A cautious routine can be felt returning to the house, which covers the painful longing of sleepless nights. “There is something terribly frustrating about such a young child who even in terms of physical objects leaves so little behind him,” Racheli shares candidly. “All of his worldly belongings remained in the backpack which he carried when he was kidnapped. For the parents of Eyal Yifrach, for example, a journal remains. That is truly a miracle, because not many teenage boys keep a journal…and suddenly his family receives his entire inner world. I am a bit jealous of them because of this. Girls leave notes and letters, but Naftali was a teenage boy, and how should I put it? I still haven’t discovered the poetry he wrote for the drawer. Even his Emails were very short.”
But that doesn’t represent who Naftali was. He was a captivating boy with braces, rebellious curls, in the final stages of childhood. “We sent him to a Zilberman-method elementary school,” his mother says. “It was a closed religious framework which believed very much in the importance of memorization. One day a week he studied in a program for gifted children together with girls and secular children and Arabs in a completely different style, and both places were very good for him. I remember that during one of the breaks Naftali recited birkat hamazon, the blessing after meals, and a secular friend said to him, ‘You are so intelligent, Naftali, what’s your thing about birkat hamazon?’ And Naftali answered him with simplicity, ‘Come, sit next to me and I’ll explain to you that birkat hamazon for me means to say ‘thank you’ for the food and to request my next meal.’
“Naftali was extremely musical. From a young age he played recorder. Over the last year he got really into guitar and taught himself to play through YouTube instructional videos. He stuffed his memory stick with every possible genre: from classical to jazz, Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, Israeli music and neo-Chassidic music. I couldn’t understand how it was possible to listen to so many different styles and love them all. More recently he started studying musical theory via the internet. You asked me what he managed to leave behind? One of the few physical objects he left us was a notebook containing chords he copied from his Shabbat songs, for which he always sang harmony.”
Interviewer: What kind of relationship did you have?
“He trusted me very much. But in our child- mother relationship, we were only in the initial stages of going to deeper places. This pains me so much, because the process of a teenager who was finding his place and opening up in a new way had only just begun, and we didn’t have the chance to go any further.
“On that Thursday we received an SMS from him that he was on his way home. We said ‘great’, he’s a big boy, and we went to sleep early. We slept wonderfully, until 3:30 in the morning when the policemen knocked on our door. The She’ar family, which had been in touch with Gilad earlier that evening, saw that he hadn’t returned home and that his cellphone was turned off. They spoke with the yeshiva and they were told that Gilad had left with Naftali, and so the policemen came to us. It took them a long time to wake us up. I remember when we heard what they wanted, there was a moment that I said , ‘Whats’ the problem? He’s upstairs, asleep in his bed.’ Because Naftali was such a responsible kid and it didn’t make any sense that he hadn’t returned home.
“We went upstairs and he wasn’t in his bed. We went down to the basement and he wasn’t there either, and only then did I understand that something terrible had happened. At first I thought maybe there had been a car accident. Avi works for the police and right away he began making phone calls. After that he and Ophir She’ar (the father of Gilad) went to the yeshiva in Gush Etsion. And they found out that the boys were in the area of Hebron. That was the flash point. That gave us a direction. Because a child who sets off for home in the area of Modiin and ends up in the Hebron area doesn’t leave many possibilities to the imagination.
Morning came and the Frankels and She’ars still didn’t know about the 3rd kidnapped boy. “When the Yifrach family arrived at the police, they already knew to connect the dots. Rumors began flying around Whatsapp and the internet, and I requested that they speak with my oldest son who had slept in Jerusalem that night to tell him the few details we knew, because I didn’t want him to hear about Naftali from somebody else. I went over to my girls’ school. That morning a special event happened to be taking place, so I sat to the side and made sure that nobody would say anything to them about what had happened, and when we got home I told them myself.
Interviewer: How did they react?
Ayelet is big. She understood that the situation was serious, and became very upset and surrounded herself with friends and counselors from Bnei Akiva. The smaller children reacted in accordance with their level of understanding. When we arrived home there was already an emergency team and tons of journalists, but I felt completely focused. The tension accumulated in my lower back, but I was very stable and very much aware of what was going on.
Interviewer: Did you believe that Naftali was alive?
Everybody was extremely straight with us, from the Prime Minister to the Defense Minister to the representatives of the Secret Services, the IDF and the police. They told us that there had been a weapon in the car. That there had been shooting. But in the same breath they told us that it was possible that the shooting had been to scare them. More intelligence was collected about the kidnappers’ intention to keep them alive. So we were left with three possibilities: that the shooting killed the boys, that they were only injured, or that they were completely alive and well and that the shooting had been in order to force them to stay quiet.
Interviewer: Did the fact that you are people of faith encourage you?
My religious faith doesn’t depend on the fact that on the condition you wear a certain amulet, everything will be good. We live in a world which is much more complicated than that. From the very first day after the kidnapping, I thought that prayer had a lot of power to it, but it doesn’t work like an ATM. You don’t press buttons and and get results. G-d isn’t my employee. I told my children, ‘We will pray, and HaKadosh Baruch Hu will act in accordance with His will.”
That was a period that was very hectic and terrifying, but there were also elements of action. Everything was very intense, and maybe because of that, I don’t remember the period of uncertainty as traumatic. The trauma was when they discovered the boys. Before that, we were surrounded with incredible support systems. We were embraced from every possibly direction.
Interviewer: How is your emotional state different today than it was right after the funeral?
Unlike the initial period, now I find places for myself to let go and sob. I set that free, and I also tell myself that it’s not good to let the tension to kill me. I want to live it in a healthy way. Now everything is still at the beginning, but I said to myself that maybe I’ll start doing yoga, or swimming, or maybe even study belly dancing. Anything that will extinguish the longing for a few hours.
My time now exists on a different plane. Life isn’t fully normal yet, also because Israel was at war, and also because there were many events surrounding the Shloshim.
In September, the kids will go back to school, and we’ll begin to get to know our new lives. I’m new in this profession, but I understand that this is a story that goes on for your entire life. So I try not to go in the direction that will sap my energy. There was a meeting with the Secret Services because they arrested one of the people who planned the kidnapping, but I didn’t go. Avi went. But I wasn’t interested in going. It’s not important. It’s important that they take care of the kidnappers, but looking at their photos isn’t good for me. I don’t want to be in a place of anger. A reporter from FOX spoke about us on his program and asked where Racheli Frankel gets the strength to forgive the kidnappers. That’s incorrect. Are you kidding? I don’t forgive the murderers, but I differentiate between the Palestinian people and Hamas.
Interviewer: And the longing?
There are times when looking at Naftali’s photos is simply torture. And there are times when it is magical for me to see him playing and happy. His friends from his school choir showed me a video in which he’s performing a solo, and I watched him singing and happy and suddenly it wasn’t torture, it was sweetness.
It gives me strength that I have happy and healthy children, energetic, optimistic, and that’s wonderful. On the whole, life is so good. I am very much in a place of thanks and gratitude for what is. Loss is loss, but beside it there is so much abundance. People ask me, ‘How are you Racheli?’ and the truth is I tell them, ‘Almost perfect.’”
View FOX News’ Sean Hannity interviewing Racheli Frankel earlier this month