As much as nearly 2,000 people can, the audience that filled the sanctuary at the Ahavath Achim Synagogue on Oct. 30 embraced the six Israeli men and women on the bimah.
The objects of this figurative hug represented not only their own family members being held hostage in Gaza, but also the families of the 230 Israelis believed to be held captive by Hamas.
Behind them were the now familiar posters of the men, women, and children kidnapped on Oct. 7 during a modern-day pogrom in communities in southern Israel and at a dance party in the desert. On the hostages’ 24th night as captives, the visiting Israelis made no effort to conceal the toll of the ordeal, speaking in pained, emotional terms about their families.
Shani Segal and Yael Nidam came on behalf of Segal’s cousin and Nidam’s sister-in-law, Rimon Kirscht, who with her husband, Yogev Bokhstab, are among the hostages. “We always hear about Southern hospitality — and the brisket. I just want to say to everyone here, thank you, from all of us. You know the past three weeks have been horrible, but it feels like home, so thank you,” Segal said.
Earlier in the day, Hamas released a video of three women held hostage, Kirscht among them. “This has been a true roller coaster. The moment we saw the video we felt, both of us, she’s alive. For three weeks, we did not know if she’s alive or dead,” Segal said.
Segal had this advice for those who ask how they can help: “First of all, this helps, a lot,” referring to the vigil. “I want to talk about education . . . We need to educate our haters. We should not seek vengeance. We should not ruin our pure hearts with bad thoughts . . . The community that was affected the most by the horrific actions of Oct. 7 was a community that fought the most for coexistence.”
Or Sella — whose family on Oct. 7 counted 12 members missing and presumed kidnapped — 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.”
Two of the 12 were released by Hamas. The bodies of three were found and funerals held. At this writing, seven others — including three children — remain missing and are presumed to be in Gaza.
Or’s cousin, Dafna Sella, carried a message from the sons of Eviatar and Lilach Kipnis, whose bodies were recovered several days apart. Their funerals were “one of the darkest times of our family,” she said.
“Her sons asked us not to revenge on behalf of their name. In the darkest times, the darkest parts of our personalities sometimes get out,” Dafna said. “Our family sent a message of peace. I feel like I need to ask you on behalf of Lilach and Tali, don’t seek revenge.” Overcome by emotion, she was unable to continue.
Ilan and Sandy Feldman spoke on behalf of Sandy’s sister and brother-in-law, Aviva and Keith Siegel. “What happened to us, to all of us, is something unprecedented . . . it’s bigger than us. I feel strongly that our personal response to this situation needs to be bigger than us,” Ilan said, adding that “Hashem is working through us, with us, around us, in a way to help us” to help the Jewish people respond to the crisis.
On their way into the sanctuary draped with Israeli flags, the audience passed through a room where an elongated, U-shaped Shabbat table had been set up, with a separate children’s table in the middle. On the back of each chair was the photograph of a missing Israeli. Segal said that she and Nidam moved the chairs with pictures of their relatives together and then moved the chair with a picture of a friend next to them.
Before the hostage family members spoke, Israel’s Consul General to the Southeast Anat Sultan-Dadon told those present, in-person, and watching online that the brutality of the Hamas attacks “has shaken us to our core.”
“We are at war over our existence, over our right to exist as a free people in our ancient homeland,” Sultan-Dadon said. “We are not fighting an enemy with a political agenda” but one seeking “the destruction of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. No ceasefire will resolve this genocidal goal. No ceasefire will ensure our continued survival in the face of the evil that wishes to destroy us.”
Sultan-Dadon had a message for those demonstrating against Israel around the world. To “those who shamelessly side with those who shamelessly seek the genocide of our people,” she said, “You are gravely mistaken. We will not be eliminated. There will be no free Palestine at the cost of the existence of the State of Israel.” Those words received robust applause.
“To those who are now choosing silence in the face of the atrocities committed against our people, your silence is shameful. There can be no forgiveness or your disgraceful silence over the burning alive of our children. History will judge you,” Sultan-Dadon said.
After Atlanta, the Israelis were to visit Chicago and New York, speaking to similar synagogue gatherings and meeting with public officials and civic leaders in those cities.
The conversation with the hostage families was moderated by Dov Wilker, Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee, who — at the close of the program — expressed his admiration for the men and women sitting to his left.
“The strength that you all have to be here and to share the story is absolutely incredible,” Wilker said, noting that the hostages hold citizenship in 25 countries. “That number is important because it recognizes the global nature of what took place, the global responsibility that the world’s leaders have to bringing these hostages home.”
“We have to share their stories,” Wilker said. “We have a responsibility. We are the ones who are able to amplify that message. We are the ones who own that responsibility.”