Fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring testimony
Photo: Guy Yechiely
Kohenet Debbi Levy, left, and Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Debra Robbins lead prayers at the site of dozens of cars that were damaged as their inhabitants tried to flee the Supernova festival Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas terrorists murdered more than 360 of the almost 1,200 Jews that were killed during all of the attacks that day. Hundreds of others were wounded.

By Debbi K. Levy

I love writing for my community. I am a “rated G” storyteller. I have found, by welcoming your feedback, that you like it too. Unfortunately, I can’t do that as I fly home from Israel reflecting on the way to convey narratives I can barely write with my trembling hand. This is not a story to share in pleasant company and I want to caution you that it simply may be too deeply painful to read if violence is a trigger for you. This is an incredibly difficult learning curve for me and yet I know that the atrocities of Oct. 7, 2023, must find a place with you and me, so that our bearing witness to our sisters and brothers might usher in the initial steps of healing.

Our two touring buses pulled in at the entrance to the spacious outdoor park that was the geography of the now infamous Nova Festival in Re’im. We 48 Solidarity Mission participants cautiously made our way down the steps of those buses, some with phones to capture photographs of homemade memorials or shattered landscapes, some with journals to record observations and feelings and still others exiting the buses with nothing at all, intending to be present with no tools or any object that could be a distraction.

We gathered soberly, passing posters marked “missing,” or “in memory.” I can only speak for myself and tell you that I was so overcome by these mostly young faces that could be any of my children, that I knew I needed a bederech, a teacher, to guide me on this unimaginable and sacred journey of what took place on Oct. 7.

Enter Yossi Landau, head of ZAKA Search and Rescue, who came to us walking softly over to the assembled “Dallas.” He began with an explanation of what his teams of volunteers actively do for the people in Israel and around the world. We learned how his Torah-inspired career brings dignity to the dead by identifying bodies, carefully transporting them to the spaces for funeral preparation and surveying all areas around the body to bring dignity to those who have fallen. ZAKA tells painfully accurate stories of their deaths, acting as their sacred spokesperson. Make no mistake, says Yossi in his own words, “I have seen it all.”

Yossi and his team have traveled around the world to bring this kind of unique care and expertise following crisis that most of us learn about by watching our newscasts. His team aided the United States following 9/11 and is perpetually on alert and fully prepared to be called for duty. Oct. 7 engaged Yossi in experiences he will tell you that neither he nor anyone else in any medical field had ever encountered. I want to share just one of his testimonial stories because I have to. It will not stay contained within me.

There were hundreds of cars at the Supernova Festival site. Groups of friends rode together and young families, anxious to celebrate the holiday of Simchat Torah with their own versions of song, dance and celebration. Israelis are sometimes better than us Americans at dancing and embodying life moments with big gestures including ear-to-ear smiles. They are often more robust in their expressions of joy.  There was not much thought at the time of the concert about impending terrorism or a well-planned massacre in the making. The unspeakable had caught the young and joyful crowd by complete surprise.

Following the terror attack, Yossi received his call to duty for him and his team. He was instructed to bring all the body bags they had in their possession at the time. Yossi couldn’t venture a guess as to what had happened. Upon arrival to the site, Yossi and his team were impacted in ways that we cannot envision, perhaps thankfully so. Many festival-goers were shot dead where they stood and once the onslaught came into group focus, victims ran to their cars to flee. Hamas had been planning for that very strategy, where they parked themselves at the exits to have a better opportunity to murder the maximum number of Israelis. Most of those attempting to exit were shot in their cars and Hamas terrorists then burned many of those vehicles, with the deceased still inside. It was for this reason that Yossi and his Divinely dedicated team had countless bodies to identify, many of them charred. The mitzvah of bringing dignity to this death scene with burned remains and the simply tragic number of victims made the entire operation even more complex.

It had been more than two hours since one husband and wife were murdered in their car — yet another horrific scene he happened upon. But when Yossi began the sacred work of his hands this time, he heard a faint, tiny voice. A 4-year-old little girl lay trapped in the blood and bodies of her parents in their family car. Tiny eyes searched an overcome Yossi. Her body in shock, she softly asked him in Hebrew if he was “friendly.” The hero that is Yossi began, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad….” The child reached out with her arms as best she could and Yossi Landau carried this precious baby girl out of harm’s way and back to the community of the Jewish people.

Our watchword prayer had become the secret code for a 4-year-old Jewish girl to know she was being lifted up into the arms of a protector.

I believe it bears mentioning that this is the way Jewish children lost to us and orphaned in the streets were found post-Holocaust. By saying the Sh’ma and looking into the eyes of the children hearing our prayer, protectors once again were able to identify the young ones who needed to be gathered to us and brought back to safety and community.

I do not know the name of this little girl that Yossi told us about, but I am praying as hard as I know how for her recovery both from what she has witnessed and for the parents she has lost forever. 

May the Eternal bless and shelter in great love all those harmed as well as those who perished on Oct. 7. May those who traveled to hear the stories and those who listened and prayed for full and complete refuah shlema (healing) for the hundreds of victims and those still being held hostage today, also find courage and be blessed for the mitzvah of bearing witness, that no one slaughtered or captured in this cruel way will ever die in vain. And may we, Your people Israel, remember that Your Wings will spread wide to envelop us in peace. Amen.

Kohenet Debbi K. Levy wishes to thank the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas for planning a Solidarity Mission that benefited our homeland and our community.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Trace Ordiway

    Whew. I had to pause to wipe a tear from my eye before writing this comment. I will never get this story out of my head. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Susan Schwartz

    You never cease to amaze with your passion for Israel and our Jewish community.

    Susan Schwartz

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