By Penny Schwartz
October 29, 2023
BOSTON (JTA) — Jason Greenberg remembers the lavish breakfast spreads Carmela Dan would serve when he and his family visited his great aunt at Kibbutz Nir Oz. He relished the shakshuka, salads and bread she prepared to welcome her American family.
“She was a great cook,” Greenberg, a lawyer in Boston, recalled of those regular visits he has made for more than 30 years.
Dan was beloved at Nir Oz, a tight-knit community on the southern border with Gaza that she helped found in 1955.
What especially stood out was the strong bond she had with her granddaughter Noya Dan, who lived with her family on Kibbutz Kissufim, just a short distance away.
Noya, whose broad smile charmed her family and friends, often spent Shabbat with her grandmother. The engaging 12-year-old was on the autism spectrum and over the years her grandmother played a leading role in her education.
Most of all, Noya, who would have turned 13 next month, loved all things Harry Potter.
“She was an interminable Harry Potter fan. It kind of defined her,” Greenberg told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a phone conversation. “If you knew Noya, you knew that she just loved Harry Potter.”
These are among the memories Greenberg is holding dear about his great aunt and second cousin as he and his family mourn their deaths.
Carmela and Noya were abducted on Shabbat morning, Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen invaded Israel from Gaza. Some 180 residents of Nir Oz were either brutally murdered or taken hostage that day, about a quarter of the residents of the small community, according to Israeli authorities. There are at least 229 people known to have been kidnapped by Hamas. Only four have been released.
The deaths and abductions in Israel have reverberated in far-off communities like Boston, where relatives like Greenberg have a deeply personal connection to the victims.
Greenberg is also worrying about the well-being of his cousin Ofer Kalderon, and two of his children, Erez and Shahar, who were also taken hostage from Nir Oz.
What’s more, Greenberg, 46, experienced the tragic events as they were unfolding. He was in Israel at the time of the Hamas attack visiting his father, Joseph Greenberg, who has lived in Israel, north of Tel Aviv, since 2019.
His sister, Abbe Onn, and her family also live in Israel.
When the sirens went off on that Shabbat morning, Greenberg and his father headed for the building’s safe shelter. When they returned to his apartment, Greenberg’s phone immediately began lighting up with WhatsApp messages from his family with details of the abductions of their relatives, who are all on his late mother’s side of the family. (Roberta Greenberg died in 2015.)
A series of messages Noya sent to her mother, Galit Dan, from her grandmother’s safety room, tear at the heart.
“Mom, there was a big boom that scared me,” Noya said in Hebrew, according to the Times of Israel. “All the windows in Grandma’s house were broken. Mommy, I’m scared.”
In those initial days, before their bodies were found, the Israeli government shared a photo of Noya wearing a Hogwart’s costume on X, the social media platform that was formerly Twitter.
The posting caught the eye of Potter author J.K. Rowling, who reposted the picture.
On Oct. 19, almost two weeks after the attack and two days after Carmela’s 80th birthday, the Israel Defense Forces notified the family that Carmela’s and Noya’s bodies were found just over the Gaza border. Their remains were later identified using DNA.
“It was the worst news you’d ever want to receive,” Greenberg told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Greenberg was horrified at the inhumanity of their murderers, who showed no mercy despite Carmela’s age and frailty and Noya’s special needs. “They were killed at the border because they were slowing down their captors,” Greenberg said they learned from the IDF.
Greenberg decided to return to Boston to be with his wife and their two young children, and to bring his father back with him to his native city. His father is eager to return to Israel.
Greenberg’s experience has received wide local coverage.
“I thought I could use my voice to help educate people. I had this dual lens that others here, thousands of miles away, don’t necessarily have,” he said. He hopes his story puts a human face on the terror attacks.
He also wanted to counter misinformation and antisemitism that he sees being spread by others, such as groups of students at Harvard and some other college campuses who blame Israel for the attacks by Hamas.
Greenberg hopes to help the efforts his sister and others have undertaken for the safe return of all of the hostages, he said. He has started a GoFundMe campaign to support Israeli families who may wish to temporarily relocate family members to the U.S.
Another victim with ties to the Boston area is Igal Wachs, a 53-year-old Israeli-American who was killed, along with his younger brother Amit, 48, while they were defending Netiv HaAsara, the village where they had lived. He and Liat Oren-Wachs, who lives in a Boston suburb, have an 11-year-old son.
“We are experiencing grief, sadness and fear from what we hear around us. Antisemitism is real and we don’t feel safe,” Oren-Wachs wrote in a text message.
Igal “had the most incredible smile … and was always helpful, kind and happy. He is missed and forever we will keep him in our hearts,” she wrote.
There are many others in Boston and across New England with family who have lost relatives in the war, according to Meron Reuben, Israel’s consul general to New England.
The story about Noya’s devotion to Harry Potter and her murder broke his heart, he told JTA in a phone conversation.
“I felt so emotional when I heard an interview with Noya’s mother when they thought she was still alive,” Reuben said. The murder of a young girl who did no harm to anyone shows Hamas’s inhumanity, he said.
“I only hope that the smiling faces of Carmela and Noya will be remembered forever and that their wishes for a better life for all will be realized.”