The six people seated before us are Israeli Jews, a small delegation visiting Australia – not dignitaries or VIPs but ordinary family members.
Each has an anguished story to share, and they do so, one by one, to a gathering of hundreds of members of Sydney’s Jewish community.
One is the uncle of 19-year-old Roni, killed by Hamas terrorists in southern Israel on October 7, as she and other young female soldiers heroically defended the communications room near the border of the Gaza strip. Some made it out alive, some were taken hostage. Sadly, Roni perished. “Mum, I love you, don't worry for me” was her final text.
Another speaker is the mother of Yotam, 28, a young man with a love for music, a drummer who was looking forward to playing at a concert later that day on October 7. Instead, he was taken into Gaza by Hamas as a hostage. His final message, as terrorists entered his home and set it alight and smoke filled his lungs: “I don't know if I can survive this. I love you.” His family has had no word from him since, but he is believed to be alive.
Another in this little delegation is a close friend of Noa, the 26-year-old Israeli woman with Japanese heritage whose kidnapping was filmed as she was taken screaming on a Hamas militant’s motorbike. Her boyfriend, Avinatan, was also abducted. Earlier that day, as the pair fled the music festival with hundreds of others — amidst 360 corpses, stench, confusion and the barrage of bullets — she sent a desperate text: Praying that someone will save us.
Each speaker represents an individual family. Yet they all belong to one great family – the Jewish people – united in this room and throughout the world as they confront the devastating aftermath of October 7. The terror of that day continues to torment families, their lives held hostage by ‘not knowing’ the fate of their loved ones still held captive. “It’s like being on Schindler’s list,” says one, with reference to the recent hostage negotiations. “Who will live, and who will die?”
“All of you, with your thoughts and prayers, give me and Yotam strength,” says Yotam’s mother. “He is not just my son, he is yours too; he is truly a son of the Jewish people.”
Her words capture the message of this hour: there is a unity, solace and extraordinary strength that comes from being Jewish, from knowing that Jews everywhere – whatever their differences in culture, spoken language, political or religious opinions – share a common sense of family, of peoplehood.
“He is not just my son, he is yours too; Yotam is truly a son of the Jewish people."
Historically, the Jewish people have defied the odds. Powerful ancient empires have come and gone, yet this numerically tiny people has survived and thrived over millennia; and this despite the repeated and most heinous attempts to destroy them.
Sitting here amidst Sydney’s Jewish community, it is abundantly obvious why they don’t take to the streets with hate-slogans to define themselves. Their resilience is manifest in the dignity of their united stance that positively affirms their identity, their relationships, their faith. They have their love for each other and their ever-practical willingness to ‘pitch in’ to assist in a crisis. “I don't need to tell you how to help us,” says one relative to the gathering. “Because the Jewish community already knows how, and does it.”
During this hour of storytelling, I notice that, despite the grief, this courageous little delegation of Israeli Jews impart no words of hatred. They could, with complete justification, brand their enemies with the hate-labels of genocide, rape, torture, mutilation and kidnapping. But they don’t. Incredibly, their words are focused on gratitude: gratitude for those who have come to hear them and for their worldwide Jewish family supporting them.
I am aware, too, that each speaker asks for prayers. “We need to show the world who we are in our prayer and in our belief that they are coming back. We believe in our country, in our love and unity as a Jewish family. This is our strength.”
“Love has no geography,” says another.
“Am Yisrael chai”, rings out through the room. “The people of Israel live.”
You are invited to join in a prayer initiative for the safe return of the estimated 135 hostages still held in captivity by Hamas. Go to: change.org/Pray for the Release of the Hostages held by Hamas.
See too: www.setthemfree.com.au
And we pray for all in Israel and Gaza who are suffering so terribly at this time. We grieve the loss of all innocent human life and pray for a swift conclusion to the war in Gaza and a credible path to peace. We pray that all parties on the international stage, as well as ordinary people on the ground, will play a responsible role in bringing about security, stability and just solutions in the region.
Photo: Family members and friends of the hostages and victims of October 7 address a gathering at a Sydney synagogue, 4 December 2023.
(c) Teresa Pirola, 2023. This article may be freely reproduced with acknowledgement.