When Lihi Shaar awoke on June 13 to the news that three Israeli students had been kidnapped the night before near the town of Alon Shvut, she had a sinking feeling — her nephew, Gilad Shaar, was studying at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim, a high school in Alon Shvut.
She also knew that Gilad often hitchhiked with friends to his family’s home in Talmon, a small West Bank community north of Jerusalem. Fearing the worst, Shaar, who is currently living in Los Angeles, phoned her parents — Gilad’s grandparents — in Israel.
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“My mom said, ‘Daddy wants to tell you something,’ ” Shaar told the Journal in a phone interview. Her father confirmed her worst fear: Gilad is one of the three Israeli boys held captive by Palestinian terrorists. Shaar’s heart sank and she began to cry. According to the Israeli government, the teens are being held by Hamas, the terrorist group that recently joined with the Palestinian Authority in a unity government.
“I just want to go to my brother and hug him and hug my nieces,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Having moved here from New York just three months ago, Shaar sought out the local Jewish community for comfort, spending Shabbat at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. And when at least 400 Jews gathered June 15 at Beth Jacob to pray for the quick and safe return of Gilad Shaar, 16, Naftali Frenkel, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, she was seated in the front row. “It was so beautiful,” she said. “I hope people keep praying.”
Eager to describe her nephew and his family, she spoke with the Journal about Gilad’s personality, character, love of Torah and cooking.
The eldest and only boy among five sisters, Shaar described Gilad as a “prince” who loves to spoil and take care of them. “He’s very sweet and humble,” she said. “He’s shy but he’s charismatic — a lot of patience.”
A counselor with B’nai Akiva, a religious Zionist youth group, Gilad is adored by his students, his aunt said, and he plans to enroll in a hesder yeshiva upon graduation from Mekor Chaim, meaning he will serve in the Israeli military while pursuing advanced Torah studies.
“He’s really serious in learning Torah and studying for his finals,” she said, adding that he’s also a talented cook.
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Gilad’s parents, Ophir and Batgalim, used to drive him the 90 minutes each way from Talmon to Alon Shvut when he came home for the weekend, Shaar said. Only recently they allowed their 16-year-old son to hitchhike — with the condition that he do so only with friends.
Explaining that hitchhiking in Israel is common, Shaar said Gilad and his two friends were taken while at a public bus stop, only a few minutes from the yeshiva and within an Israeli town, not a West Bank Arab town. Gilad, his aunt said, is not one to engage in reckless behavior.
Although the Israel Defense Forces forbids soldiers to hitchhike, the practice is common among the religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox.
“He’s not an adventurous guy,” Shaar said of Gilad, adding that searching for rides at 10 p.m. on a summer evening is not considered risky among Jews in communities like Alon Shvut. “Gilad is a very responsible guy. He knows he’s the only son. He won’t do it to his parents.”
She said she doesn’t want the boys to feel “guilty and responsible” for their kidnapping. “It’s very hard for me to think we have to be scared to live in our territory at 10 p.m.,” Shaar said.
“I can’t even imagine what he’s going through. He’s supposed to do homework, to make cake, not to deal with … ” Shaar’s voice trailed off.
“It’s too crazy.”