March 31, 2024: Sonia Israel

When I arrived in Israel, I had a few hours to wait before leaving for Jerusalem, so I met with my cousins for coffee, and Galia began telling me stories of what the first few weeks of the war in Israel were like for her and Avi

She began by telling me that for the first 80 days (80 days!), they had the TV news on 24/7. They just sat all day long listening and watching. At that point it got to be too much, and they began distracting themselves with non-news shows.

During the first days right after the October 7 attack, Galia began searching for opportunities to help. She found one that she thought would be good for Avi, and they both ended up volunteering. It was at the Expo in Tel Aviv where Dr. Karen Nahone, an associate professor of Information Science at the Reichman University in Israel. On the morning of October 7, as the massacre was going on, she realized they needed “a civilian war room” to help track down all those that were missing. At that point they did not know about the hostages, and they thought that about 30 people were dead. By the afternoon, the real numbers became more clear. By Sunday morning they were ready to start researching. Dr. Nahone reported in an interview that she figured it would take 5-6 hours to identify all the names. Instead it took weeks, and not because they weren’t good at it, but because it turned out that there were 10,000 names. Once the request for volunteers went out, 1,500 people showed up, including Galia and Avi.

The volunteers started by sending out calls on social media for anyone who had a video or photos from the Gaza border areas or from the Nova concert. Two days later, they had 200,000 videos. One quote from one of the volunteers really cut to my soul, “How do you recognize a face from the body, when the face doesn’t exist or is covered in blood?” And the videos not only came from the volunteers’ personal contacts, they also came from Hamas who had 150 channels where the terrorists were posting videos of their massacres.

After three days, the lists had been narrowed to 4,300 names. And after three weeks, only 50 names were left, and the work was turned over to the IDF.

Avi’s job was emotionally much harder, but after a few days, he was made the manager of his group. They took the photos identifying each name and tried to match it to the Hamas and other videos to determine what had happened to each of those people. And Dr. Nahone was there with them, every day, working alongside them.

I asked how long each day they worked. Galia said they were given time shifts, but she didn’t want to leave, so she would work all day from morning to night. And then, when she got home and tried to sleep, the images and the names would run like a movie in her head.

The team was wise enough to know that all these volunteers would need psychological help. They brought in three psychologists, and at first tried to hold group therapy. That did not work. The volunteers just wanted to get back to their work. After a while, a psychologist would just sit next to her until she was ready to talk.

Terrifying work. Terrifying images. Amazing use of artificial intelligence. On February 26, Dr. Nahone received the Medel of Distinction from the Peres Center of Peace and Innovation as one of only 20 heroines of October 7.

Later that morning, Yona Leshets, our guide when we were here in May for Federation’s CommUNITY Trip and our guide again, picked me up and we drove to Jerusalem together for the start of this Solidarity Mission. There is a new road into the city which goes right past Yar Herzl (Mt Herzl). He asked if I wanted to stop. I replied I had just been there last year. But no, he said, since October 7 there are so many more graves. So we stopped. And it was heartbreaking to see grave after grave after grave, each covered with photos and memorabilia of these young men and women with their date of death – October 7. October 7. October 7. October 8. October 9. And on and on.

There was a group of students there showing their respect. And a group of off-duty soldiers, in their shorts and t-shirts, carrying their guns slung over their shoulders. This is a new life. A new norm.

We spent the afternoon in the Old City of Jerusalem, my favorite place in the world to be. We made our way to the Kotel. At the plaza there is a new memorial for all those killed on October 7, listing each name with a yahrzeit candle for each one. This is a new world.

That evening, during dinner at the Kedma Restaurant in Mamila Mall (and an amazing dinner with the food being brought out non-stop), we listened to a panel discussion chaired by Charlene Seidle (President and CEO of the Leichtag Foundation) with two journalists: Maya Buenos of the Maariv newspaper and Natan Odenheimer of the New York Times. Charlene started the session with a Shehecheyanu prayer recognizing that we are alive and have reached this moment. This prayer always brings tears to my eyes and tonight was no different. It had a new and more poignant meaning.

And then they all thanked us for coming, for being here. Everyone I have met, from family to friends to strangers, have thanked us for coming. For me it was a no-brainer. For them it is an act of courage.

They talked about their experiences since October 7. I loved when Maya said, “Sometimes you hold the community and other times the community holds you.” This is so true especially now. It is the community that is holding the country together, more so than the government. The sentiment I heard over and over again is that the government is not present – it’s missing. Where were they on October 7? Where are they now?

But the community has stepped up. I already wrote about all the volunteer work my cousins are doing. And they are just a few. Everyone in this country is doing the same thing. It is the people who found housing for those needing it. It is the people who supply food. It is the people who show up at funerals and shiva even when they don’t know who is being buried. Maya spoke about what a tremendous honor is to be working and helping. It is about the grass roots now. The people are here. Young and old. But it is the young that will lead us.

Today, March 31, is day 177 for the hostages. 177 days…

Maya spoke about the difference between the Israeli internal papers and the international ones. And her conclusion was that no one can be objective right now. It is all personal. They are not just telling the stories. They are part of the stories.

Reporters speaking during Federation Solidarity with Israel MissionShe told of being down at the Nova festival site where hundreds upon hundreds of young people were murdered. She told of trucks filled with bodies. One soldier alone collected 352 bodies. And he told her that he remembers each and every one of them. And as he moved each body, he apologized to them.

She told of interviewing Aisha Ziyadne, a 16-year-old Bedouin girl who was kidnapped by Hamas and released 50 days later, along with her brother and a few of the other hostages. Maya visited her village. Aisha did not speak Hebrew and Maya (much to her dismay she said), does not speak Arabic. So she thought she would write the questions in Hebrew and have Google translate them into Arabic. But it turns out that Aisha cannot read or write. So her sister translated for them. But, Maya continued, even though she could not understand the words Aisha spoke, she knew exactly what she was saying. She could see it in her eyes. Maya went on to say that the whole situation in Israel can now be seen in people’s eyes.

I related to that. If you have been reading my thoughts the last two days, I said the same thing. People may be smiling, but the smiles don’t reach their eyes. Their eyes show despair and sadness. I’m not sure if this can ever change.

And their advice to us: “Be the heart that listens.” This is the darkest chapter in the history of Israel. Israel is now fighting for her life. Be the heart that listens.


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