Nearly ten weeks have passed since the horrendous events of October 7th. The war continues in Gaza, as Israel strives to rescue those kidnapped by Hamas and its allies even as it fights to eliminate the ongoing threat by the terrorist regime of Hamas. Over 100 Israeli soldiers have died in combat, thousands have been wounded, over and above the many victims of the initial attack. During the several days of the ceasefire, over 100 of those taken hostage by Hamas were returned to Israel and their loved ones, but some 130 or so others remain unaccounted for. Our prayers continue for their safe return as well.
Early on, we realized that it was important to recognize that these people are all individuals with lives that have been disrupted. They have families and friends waiting for word about them and who are filled with deep concern for their welfare. We did not want them to remain simply numbers and thus at the recommendation of some national Jewish groups we chose at random two individuals to represent the entire group, one older woman and another a young child, Ditza Heiman and Avigail Idan. We had taken their names from a list that had gone out and we looked up information that we could find about each of them. We set two chairs on the bimah with their pictures affixed, as places available for them to rejoin us. Thankfully, both of them were among those released during the days of the ceasefire. But these two were intended to represent all of the more than 200 captives. Over 130 other people are still being held hostage and we do not know their condition, their whereabouts, and if and when they will be allowed to return home. Rumors have circulated as to some individuals being tortured or murdered by their captors, some have been sexually abused and raped, but the truth is still elusive. However, several deaths have recently been confirmed. Our two chairs remain empty on our bimah to remind us that we are still waiting for all of them to return. In place of Ditza and Avigail, we have now put pictures of twin brothers whom we learned of from one of our Temple members. They are Gali and Ziv Berman, 26-year-old sons of the in-laws of our member’s cousin. As we read about them and think of them, we know that it is possible to obtain the names of all of those who have been taken, to see the pictures of most of them which one can find on-line, and often more information has been provided by various news sources about each of these people to remind us that they are not just numbers. They are not simply hostages, they are our brothers and sisters, mostly Jewish, but not only Jews, for the terrorists took others as well. They are all innocent victims of an intractable foe who has total disregard for human life or the dignity of individuals.
The Berman brothers have been missing since October 7th. Their older brother Liran had planned to join them in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz only two kilometers from the border with Gaza, for the last days of the Sukkot holiday. However, since his wife came down with Covid, they stayed away at home in Zichron Yaakov, 90 miles north of Kfar Aza. When the attack began, Liran began texting his family members, his mother Talia, Ziv and Gali, and another brother, Idan, as they hid in their safe rooms while the atrocities and gun battles between Hamas and Israeli security forces continued. Eventually Talia was freed along with the brothers’ father, Doron, who has advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Later Idan also was freed.
A close friend of Ziv’s, Noa Reuveni, who was traveling in California when the attack began also was messaging Ziv. He reported to her that he was hearing Arabic outside his safe room and was scared. She said that he was alone at his house at Kibbutz Kfar Aza and his brother Gali was with a neighbor trying to calm her down during the attack. She tried to reassure Ziv and kept telling him to breathe, she said, to keep locked and quiet in his room. He kept telling her that he was scared. Her last message to him was “I’m with you” with a red heart emoji at the end. That message was not returned.
According to the papers, it took several more days before Israeli forces regained control of Kfar Aza and it was found that of the 400 residents of that village, more than 60 had been murdered and 18 kidnapped. Many of the bodies found there were badly burned or mutilated and it was difficult to identify many of the dead. It was unknown for days whether Ziv and Gali were among the dead or the kidnapped. Only after 10 days did the family get news from Israeli officers that “with 99.9% guarantee”, the brothers were among the kidnapped, they were still alive. “We are still living on that hope. It’s the only thing we have left,” according to Liran. He admitted that it was weird that they felt joyful to learn that the brothers had been kidnapped only because it was better news than learning that they had been among those killed. There is still hope for them.
Based on that hope, Liran went to Washington earlier this month as part of a delegation of hostages’ relatives organized by a Voice for Freedom, a coalition of groups seeking to keep the captive’s plight in the spotlight as we are trying to do by the chairs on our bimah. Representatives of four families met with senior Congressional figures from both sides of the aisle, including the new speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, in a concerted lobbying effort.
One stated goal was to exert pressure on Qatar to turn up the heat on Hamas to release the remaining captives. Voice of Freedom argues that if Qatar refuses, it should be held accountable under US law that imposes sanctions on states deemed to sponsor terrorism from which Qatar is currently exempt due to its status as a humanitarian conduit to Gaza. Otherwise, they are relying on Israel’s government and the Israel Defense Forces to do everything possible to free the hostages. Obviously, they have conflicted feelings about the situation for anything can happen in warfare and there is no guarantee that the hostages will be released or that they will still be alive once Israel locates them and attempts to free them. Liran said, “We trust the IDF to do whatever it can not to hurt the hostages and not harm civilians, although anything can happen in war.” At this point we and they are still waiting for word and living on the hope that they will ultimately be freed.
At this season of Chanukah, when we speak of miracles, our prayers continue in the hope that both goals of Israel will be fulfilled, the hostages all freed and the ongoing threat by Hamas finally removed. At this point, nobody knows what the outcome will be and whether or not either of these goals will be attained. We keep two seats open on the bimah and pray that Ziv and Gali and all the others may soon be free.