By Leah Garber
It’s so personal. All of it is.
The 59 days of our national nightmare is my nightmare.
The October 7 atrocities happened to me, to my family, to my loved ones. The October 7 massacre, the physical attack, and the assaults against Israel and Jews across social media are directed at me, assaulting my family. I take everything personally. How can I not?
It’s been 59 days since people who used to be strangers to me have become people I’ve learned to know, care for, cry for, pray for, and yearn for their safety. The laughter as the terrorists’ blood-stained hands moved from one act of killing to another still hurts my ears. The charred walls of the kibbutzim’s abandoned homes are the walls of my house; the furniture shattered everywhere is my furniture; and the burnt gardens are the flowers I planted in my beloved homeland.
Today I was invited to a meeting at the Return Them Home Now headquarters in Tel Aviv. It’s a civil organization comprised entirely of volunteers who have been working day and night since October 8 for the return of all the hostages. Thanks to their persistent efforts, 113 hostages have been released, but 136—including baby Kfir and his 4-year-old brother, Ariel,—are still across the border in the darkness of Gaza’s tunnels. One-hundred-thirty-six human beings are marking 59 days in captivity as their families mark 59 days of living through the hell of the unknown.
The purpose of the meeting was to engage directors of different organizations that work with Jewish communities around the world and through them, to amplify the message that all 136 hostages must be returned home as soon as possible because every day in captivity puts them at increased risk of physical and emotional harm.
While we were in the meeting, tearily watching various videos that included testimonies of survivors and rescuers, 18-year-old Ofir Angel, who was released from captivity a few days ago, entered the room. It’s hard to describe the excitement that ensued. We all stood and clapped for Ofir and his excited parents who entered the room with him. For their part, as grateful, joyful, and relived as they are at the return of their son from the land of the dead, they continue their activities working for the return of all the hostages simply because, like me, all of us here take it very personally, and having their own Ofir back home is not enough.
His return to the land of the living only reminds us of how many others remain in Gaza, beyond the iron wall that is so close to their home. I shook Ofir’s hand as if I had known him all his life, although apart from his photo emblazoned on the hostage poster, his face was unfamiliar to me. But his story is not. I know that he was kidnapped when he came to Kibbutz Be’eri to visit his girlfriend, that he celebrated his birthday in captivity, and that his sweet, innocent smile did not fade, despite the darkness that surrounded him for 54 days.
I take personally the testimonies shared by the released hostages about other Israelis who were kidnapped and who were with them in the Hamas tunnels, but unfortunately died from lack of medical treatment or were murdered by the terrorists. Who knew this sea of tears could be so endless or that there is no limit to the sorrow one can feel?
I’m crying with families who until a few days ago believed their loved ones were being held captive by Hamas, alive, and were informed this week that all the evidence indicates that they are not alive and that their bodies are being held by the terrorists. The happy return of the hostages, for them, was the moment that brought the difficult news about the death of their loved one.
I’m personally eager to hold the 3-year-old twins, Yuli and Emma, who returned with their mom, but especially little Yuli who, while in captivity, was separated from her family a few days after the family was kidnapped. I can physically feel the pain of Yuli’s mom as her baby was torn from her arms and taken—alone—to another place. I hear Yuli’s cries and those of her parents. Like her parents, I too can’t escape the questions: Where was Yuli all the time she was away from them? What did she see, and who took care of her?
And just as she disappeared, 10 days later her mother heard a familiar cry of little Yuli as she was brought back to her by an Arab woman. Did Yuli cry all 10 days? Was she left and abandoned somewhere until a passer-by found her and concluded she was kidnapped? Will we ever know?
An entire country has been breathing at the same rate for 59 days, smiling simultaneously when the hugs of the returnees are seen on our screens at the precise moment they fall on the necks of their loved ones. At the same time, the hearts of our entire country simultaneously miss a beat when families are told that their loved ones have been murdered.
I don’t ever remember such a prolonged period in which I felt such closeness to fellow Israelis I don’t know. With these strangers, the feeling of togetherness is so tangible, so real. This is a time in which I can approach a family of evacuees from Sderot and, just like that, embrace them in a hug—a sincere, wholehearted hug.
There is certainly a toll related to the fact that the events of the massacre and everything that followed are so personal. We are paying the price in sleepless nights, deep sadness, mournful thoughts. At the same time, we are strengthened knowing an entire nation mourns and hurts together, even as we embrace the returned hostages together.
Both the honey and the sting are so personal because these people are ours. They belong to all of us.
Together, united, we will overcome.