Names are very important in Jewish tradition. The second book of the Torah, known in English as Exodus, bears the name “Shmot” in Hebrew which simply means names. Its opening verses list the children of Jacob/Israel, a listing that already appeared in Genesis. However, again and again we are reminded of the names of those who established the Jewish faith, the twelve tribes of Israel. When a child is born, his parents are expected to choose a Hebrew name for him or her. Often it is the name of a deceased relative, a grandparent or uncle or aunt. By choosing such a name, one carries in a sense the heritage of the previous generations and keeps their memory alive and fresh.
When we recall those who perished in the Shoah, we cannot name all six million, however at the Israeli memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, literally “a memorial and a name,” every effort has been made to recover the names of those who died. I understand, that they have some four and a half million names collected so far. In past observances of Yom HaShoah, we have been told, “Everyone has a name” and it is an obligation to take the numbers, the six million, and make them human once again, by giving them a name and recognizing their humanity. They are never numbers, they were our brothers and sisters.
On Israel's memorial day, Yom HaShoah, I have seen presentations where the names of all those who died to establish the State of Israel, and those who died in its defense, as well as those who perished in terrorist attacks, are scrolled down a screen, one by one, to remind us that this terrible toll of life,. They were not simply numbers, but each victim has a name, a history, a family, people who continue to mourn that loss.
You may recall a number of years back, an effort was made to give names to Jews in the Soviet Union who yearned to be free. Many congregations twinned their bar and bat mitzvah students with young people in the Soviet Union who were unable, at that time, to celebrate their b'nai mitzvah. By giving a name and face to these young people we were able better to understand what they were facing and to feel a greater sense of connection to all of the other people in their community as well.
Now, in the wake of the horrific attacks on the people of Israel, we reach out to extend our words of comfort and consolation to the bereaved families in particular, but also to recognize our own sense of loss, both the physical loss of life, but also the loss of our sense of security, as we see how quickly many of those who at first condemned the brutality of Hamas, have turned to blaming and condemning the victims.
In addition to the hundreds murdered in the initial attack by Hamas, we know that over 200 individuals have been taken captive and are being held as hostages by Hamas. We pray for their safety and their swift return to their families and homes. Faced with such a large group of hostages, it is important that we emphasize that each and every one of them has a name, has a life, and was snatched away from family and friends, taken by force, apparently to the underground labyrinth of this vicious organization.
It has been suggested by some of the national Jewish organizations that in order to better appreciate the situation and to connect more directly with the victims, we should choose one or two individuals from among them, set empty seats on the bimah of the Temple for them, and offer our prayers not just for an unknown number of anonymous captives, but for the one or two people we have chosen, more or less at random, and along with them all the other individuals being held.
So we took the list of hostages, the names of most of them are known and, if you go on-line you may find their pictures as well. We decided to set a seat aside for Ditza Heiman, age 84, a retired Social Worker who continued working until four years ago, and for Avigail Idan, a three-year-old, both of whose parents were murdered by Hamas, while her older siblings managed to escape. We pray for Ditza and for Avigail and for all the other individuals who have names and families and lives to live.
Thanks to the wonder of the internet, we can search deeper and get to know these two people a bit better. Ditza is from Nir Oz, a Kibbutz in the southwest part of the Negev, that was the most devastated by the attack by Hamas. Twenty-four members of the kibbutz were killed, about 80 others were either abducted or are missing, totaling about one quarter of the population of this agricultural community. CNN posted videos of the devastation and representatives of the Israeli government have already met with the surviving members most of whom have found a temporary home in Eilat. They were told that it would take about two years before their kibbutz was renovated and restored and the remaining residents brought back in stages.
Ditza's stepson Amichai Shdaimah is quoted in the “Times of Israel.” His father married Ditza some 35 years ago and he and his siblings were treated by her as her own children. Amichai said that she was “like a savta (grandma) to our kids. Since my father died, we visit her every time we come to Israel. She has four children from an earlier marriage, three stepchildren from her second marriage, twenty grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, all praying for her safe return.
Ditza lived alone and was in her home's safe room by herself on the morning of October 7th, when the terrorists invaded the kibbutz early in the attack that murdered some1300 Israelis.
The “Times” reports that she spoke with her family that morning as they checked up on her. The last time anyone heard from her, though, was around 10:00 am and when they finally got through to her phone again at 4:00 pm, someone answered in Arabic.
The article includes a picture of her in her kitchen making a large pot of soup. Though 84, her mind is still sharp and she is independent, her family feels additional concern because she takes various medications and they do not know to what extent she is receiving the medical support she requires.
On the morning of October 7th, a neighbor heard her calling for help and went outside, but when he saw her surrounded by Hamas terrorists, he escaped back into his own sealed room. A video released by Hamas shows her home and Nitza getting into a car. We join her family and friends in praying for her safe return very soon.
The second person we chose to single out from these many hostages, is a beautiful, three-year-old toddler, Avigail Idan from Kibbutz K'far Aza, only 3 kilometers away from the border with the Gaza Strip. This kibbutz is the site of the horrific acts of barbarity that we have learned of, beheadings, dismemberment of bodies, and burning of people. As of last week, 52 residents were reported dead and another 20 were missing or abducted.
Avigail's father, Roye Idan, was a photographer for Ynet who had run outside early on Saturday morning and took some of the earliest pictures of the attack, as the Hamas members arrived by hang-gliders in the kibbutz. Realizing what was happening, Roye ran home only to find that terrorists had been there and killed his wife. The couple's three children, Michael, Amalya, and Avigail ran outside to their father, but as the terrorists approached the two older children ran back into the house while Avigail ran to the neighbors. Roye was shot and badly wounded, later dying of his wounds. Michael, 9, and Amalya, 6, hid in a closet for the next 14 hours. They were in touch with a dispatcher from Magen David Adom who instructed them to lock the door and not to let anyone in until good people arrived.
As for Avigail, she was taken by her neighbor into their safe room, while the father of that family went out to fight the attackers. When he returned, he found his wife, his three children, and Avigail missing and presumed to be among the captives taken off by Hamas.
When Roye's brother finally got through to the children, six-year-old Amalya answered the phone and told him, “the terrorists killed mom and dad, but don't worry, the army is on the way.” So now while they await word of Avigail's fate, Michael and Amalya are with their uncle and aunt. Avigayil and her siblings, like their mother are all American citizens. We pray for Avigail's safe return to her family.
Every one of the more than 200 hostages has his or her personal story, their families, their communities. As we pray for Ditza and for Avigail, we also pray for all the others. These two represent the rest and we are thinking of them all. May the Almighty keep them safe and may they return soon in good health to those who love them and to the communities who offer prayers on their behalf.