The mood in Chicago’s Federal Plaza was bittersweet last night, as more than 500 Chicagoans gathered to show support for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
The crowd was somber, noting Shalit’s years in captivity, but also hopeful and prayerful for his safe return to his family.
The candlelight vigil was held on the eve of the fourth anniversary of Shalit’s abduction from Israel by the terrorist group Hamas. On June 25, 2006, Shalit—then a 19-year-old soldier in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—was attacked while guarding a place called Kerem Shalom (Vineyard of Peace), one of half a dozen border crossings that enable commerce between Israel and Gaza. Contrary to international law and all standards of decency, the kidnapped soldier also has been held virtually incommunicado, with no right of visitation by any humanitarian body.
“Tonight we gather together with communities around the world—from New York to Rome and from Paris to Jerusalem—in vigil for Gilad Shalit,” said Midge Perlman Shafton, past chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, in the evening’s opening remarks. “Tonight we show the world that this son of Israel and the Jewish people will not be forgotten. Tonight we send a message of solidarity to the Shalit family. Tonight, our candles, representing hope, provide a beacon of light to Gilad Shalit and other soldiers whose whereabouts are unknown.”
Orli Gil, consul general of Israel to the Midwest, asked vigil participants to put themselves in the place of Shalit’s family and loved ones. “Imagine their fears, their hopes, their despair,” she said. “We can imagine it because we all feel for Gilad and the Shalit family. Because he’s ours and we want him back, as we want and need all our boys back, each and every one of them.”
Gil also explained why his freedom is so important to the state of Israel. “We ask for the release of Gilad Shalit because it is the right thing to do. Because his being in a cell does not serve any cause. We will continue our efforts for his release as we will continue to strive for peace with our neighbors,” she said. “We fight for Gilad because he has become a son to all Israelis. You’re here tonight because you feel he became part of your family as well—a member in the family of the Jewish people, of klal yisrael.”
David Greenbaum, president of JUF’s Young Leadership Division, read a statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Diamond, urging those detaining Shalit to grant him the contact with his family and humane living conditions.
David T. Brown, chair of JCRC’s government affairs committee, shared the news that U.S. House Resolution 1359, calling for Shalit’s immediate and unconditional release, had just passed unanimously.
Illinois State Senator Ira Silverstein also addressed the gathering. “We come together with the hope that we won’t come together to memorialize and think about this horrible event [again],” he said. “We are calling on people all over the country…to try to get Gilad released so he can come to America and we can all dance with him in this square next year.”
Oren Dekalo, chairman of the Young Leadership of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, shared his personal connection to Shalit before reciting a poem entitled When You’re Home. “I learned some time ago that Gilad Shalit and I have something in common—that is our birthdays, August 28,” Dekalo said. “My wish for Gilad is that for this coming birthday he be able to celebrate his 24th the way I know I’ll be able to celebrate my 29th—in the comfort and in the safely and in the security of his friends and of his loved ones. May this wish be granted.”
The evening concluded with a prayer for the captive led by Rabbi Daniel Sherbill, president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and with a powerful rendition of Oseh Shalom.
The vigil was attended by community members of all ages. Gabe Axler, who plans to make aliyah this year with his wife, finished his service in the Israeli army just six months before Gilad was captured. “To me, this is very, very personal,” he said. “His story rings very close to my heart.”
Meital Hoffman, a 12-year-old student at Solomon Schechter Day School, in Skokie, attended the vigil with three generations of her family—her grandmother, her mother, and her younger sister all stood by her side. Hoffman, who was born in Jerusalem, understood the importance of gathering in honor of Shalit.
“It’s important for me to be here tonight because it’s a big deal for my family and me about Gilad Shalit and how he was captured,” she said. “It’s nice to express your views on things and not just be sitting at home and watching a movie all night. It’s good to do something and be noticed and make a difference.”
As she stood with her family, she wished Shalit’s family well. “I’m sure it’s very hard,” she said. “I hope that he is freed soon. They really need that for their family.”
The candlelight vigil was sponsored by the Young Leadership Division and Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, The Hillels of Illinois, and Young Leadership of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.