Seven weeks ago, I did not know their names.
Seven weeks ago, I did not know their faces.
Seven weeks ago, I knew nothing about them.
That changed after the Oct. 7 Hamas massacres in southern Israel, when I learned that 10 members of my extended family were missing from Kibbutz Be’eri, as were two others from Kibbutz Nir Oz.
These cousins are descended from or connected by marriage to descendants of my great-grandfather’s twin brother. Yisrael Schechter emigrated in 1882 from Romania to what then was part of the Ottoman Empire, where he helped found the town of Zichron Yaakov.
Five generations later, there are more than a few hundred Schechter descendants in Israel. I met some of them — actually about 150 — at a family gathering in Israel in 1985 but did not maintain contact.
That also changed. Since Oct. 7, I have added more than three dozen leaves to the family tree in my computer.
In addition to tracking developments in the story, and reporting on Jewish Atlanta’s response to the terror attacks and Israel’s war against Hamas, I have paid particular attention to updates about the family members. I have written about them in this column and posted their pictures on social media platforms, with the hashtag #BringThemHome.
The mother and daughter kidnapped while visiting Nir Oz, who live in the Chicago area, were released on Oct. 20.
Six of the 10 at Be’eri were visiting from elsewhere in Israel on Oct. 7, taking advantage of the Sukkot holiday period. Ten days later, the bodies of three residents of Be’eri — two men and a woman, people roughly my age — were recovered and identified. Funerals were held for Eviatar Kipnis, z”l; his wife, Lilach Kipnis, z”l, and Avshalom Haran, z”l, while seven other family members, representing three generations, were held hostage in Gaza.
Hopes for their freedom were raised with a negotiated pause in the war that included an agreement to exchange Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails for kidnapped Israelis and other foreign nationals held hostage in Gaza.
The first exchange took place Nov. 24. The next day — day 50, starting with Oct. 7 — 13 Israelis were released, among them six of the seven kidnapped family members. Freed were Avshalom Haran’s wife, Shoshan (who is also Lilach’s sister); their daughter, Adi Shoham, and grandchildren Yahel, 3, and Naveh, 8, along with Avshalom’s sister, Sharon Avigdori and her daughter, Noam, 12.
For weeks, they have been faces on “Kidnapped” posters — such as those displayed on the bimah at the Ahavath Achim Synagogue and on the backs of empty chairs at a Shabbat table during an Oct. 30 vigil for the hostages. Seeing photographs and videos of them after their release was, to say the least, heartwarming.
That joy was tempered by awareness that Tal Shoham, Adi’s husband and Yahel’s and Naveh’s father, remains a hostage in Gaza.
Contact with Israeli cousins has been a ray of light in this darkness. I have shared some of my columns with them and their messages have provided a glimpse of the strain caused by this ordeal.
For weeks, they have been faces on ‘Kidnapped’ posters — such as those displayed on the bimah at the Ahavath Achim Synagogue and on the backs of empty chairs at a Shabbat table during an Oct. 30 vigil for the hostages. Seeing photographs and videos of them after their release was, to say the least, heartwarming.
I have watched from afar as the extended family has mourned and —putting their pre-Oct. 7 lives on hold — devoted itself to the return of not only their relatives but all of the kidnapped.
They kept the hostages front and center on social media and gave interviews to Israeli and foreign media. They were present as hostage families gathered near the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, in an area known as “Hostages Square.” A film student produced a video about the missing family members, while another cousin became a leader as the families organized and marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to confront the government.
Meeting two of the cousins at the Atlanta Press Club, where they and representatives of two other hostage families spoke, as part of a tour to raise public awareness in the United States, was an extraordinary and affecting coincidence.
At the Ahavath Achim hostage vigil, Or Sella, whose father hosted the gathering that my wife and I attended those many years ago, said: Sooner than later, I’ll come back to being a musician and a music producer. All of us — and a lot of families in Israel . . . this is who we are, families of hostages.”
Over the past seven weeks, the Israeli cousins — people whose names, faces, and lives previously were unknown to me — have become part of my life, professionally and personally, both expanding and enhancing the meaning of family.