Vigilance required to keep all informed
By Sharon Wisch-Ray
A recent elevator encounter proved to me the importance of the work of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum
(bringthemhomenow.net). The grassroots organization was formed by families of those abducted Oct. 7 by Hamas terrorists, with the singular mission of bringing the hostages home.
Since its inception the families of hostages have worked tirelessly to keep the names of their loved ones in the news, so they are not forgotten. In Dallas last week, three families made the rounds over the course of two days to fulfill the Forum’s mission. Joel Schwitzer, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, and his team helped coordinate the multi-day visit.
On Wednesday evening, Jan. 31, I had just finished attending a program for about three dozen Jewish community leaders held at the Park Cities Club. The exchange in the elevator, proved why the topic was vital.
Entering the elevator with me were Janice Sweet Weinberg and Dot Haymann, Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas board chair. One member of two couples who joined us on our journey down to the lobby jovially asked, “Did y’all enjoy the program? What event were you at?” Weinberg explained that we had just heard from family members of Israeli hostages in Gaza.
“Oh,” he replied somewhat stunned. “I didn’t realize there were still hostages in Gaza.” To which I replied, “Yes, there are still 136 hostages in Gaza.” As the elevator doors opened and we exited, another member of the foursome said sincerely, “We will add the hostages to our prayer list.”
Telling their stories
When the delegation arrived in Dallas, they had already visited San Antonio and Austin. In addition to speaking to the TJP, they spoke to numerous civic groups, churches and Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. The delegation of families included Moshe Lavi, whose brother-in-law Omri Mirin is being held hostage; Dalia Cusnir, whose brothers-in-law Eitan and Yair Horn are being held hostage; and LeElle Slifer, whose cousin Carmel Gat is being held hostage.
Moshe Lavi, who grew up in the Gaza envelope, is a recent MBA graduate of the Wharton School and had recently arrived in New York City to begin work at Kearny when Oct. 7 unfolded. At that time, Lavi’s family were still residents of the Gaza envelope. His parents lived in Sderot and were able to evacuate unharmed. His eldest sister and her family lived at Kibbutz Or HaNer. Fortunately, the security team at Or HaNer thwarted the Hamas terrorists and his sister and her family were safe.
Captured, but not forgotten
Lavi shared the story of his middle sister Lishay Mirin and her family, who lived on Kibbutz Nahal Oz. When hundreds of Hamas terrorists overran the kibbutz Oct. 7, Lishay, her husband Omri and their two young daughters, Roni and Alma, were held hostage in their home for many hours.
“Our tragic story is just one story out of so many terrible stories that took place that day. Omri and Lishay were held captive in their home; for hours they were abused,” Lavi said. He explained that his younger niece, who is 9 months old, has spent a third of her life without her father.
Lavi said that when he learned of the gravity of the attack in the early hours of Oct. 7 he and his family were together on WhatsApp staying in touch with Lishay and her family. After about 5 hours, 4:30 a.m. New York time, they lost contact. After about 10 hours, Lavi’s mother received a Facebook message that Lishay and her daughters were safe, but Omri had been taken hostage.
“You can imagine the dread, the hopelessness I felt being so far,” he told the TJP. He added that he and his family haven’t even begun processing or mourning those that they know had perished. “We’re laser focused on advocacy for Omri and all the hostages,” Lavi said.
For days Lavi said he scoured the online videos for signs of life of his brother-in-law. Although they knew he was kidnapped, they didn’t have confirmation he was alive until late November, when released hostages confirmed that he was alive in late November in Gaza tunnels — sometimes isolated and other times with other people. “We know he was alive then eight weeks ago and we hope that he’s still alive and will return to us soon.”
Lavi commented on the negotiations currently taking place and said that any deal made would likely be “a bad deal for Israel” and that “difficult decisions will be required of our elected officials.”
He added, “I hope they’ll find the right formula but at the end of the day it depends as well on the other side and Hamas is a terrorist organization.”
Lavi said that government officials from the security apparatus to the prime minister have reiterated to the hostages’ families that their primary objective is to bring the hostages home. He added that the United States’ strong bipartisan support of Israel has been meaningful.
“I am grateful for that and I think many people in Israel are grateful for it. It’s important for Americans to know we don’t care for the internal politics in the U.S., but we’re grateful for Republicans and Democrats supporting us in a bipartisan fashion.”
Lavi explained why he and other family members do what they do. “We do all these meetings to pressure public officials, but we also meet communities and we try to raise awareness so that they’ll continue to spread the word of the issue of the hostages. That it is humanitarian. It’s multifaith. It’s an international issue that needs to be solved.
“Any peace-loving, life-affirming person in the world needs to be involved with this and advocate for the release of the hostages irrespective of their political disposition.
“I would be happy to meet any community willing to accept us and listen to our story.”
In addition to speaking to the TJP, Lavi addressed the group of community leaders later in the evening. Also addressing that group was Slifer, a Dallas attorney who spoke to the group of 30-plus members of the Jewish community, representing the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas among others. Cusnir was speaking that evening in Spanish at First Mexican Baptist Church in downtown Dallas.
To provide context, Slifer told the story of her family’s history in Israel, which dates back more than 2,000 years. They were Kohanim who never left Israel. Slifer used to spend her summers in Israel on the kibbutz with her cousins who were close in age to her. Among them was her cousin Carmel Gat, who was just six months older than she. Slifer explained that the family had gathered at the Kibbutz Be‘eri home of Kineret and Eshel Gat for Shabbat and Simchat Torah. Two of the Gats’ three children were there — Alon and Carmel as well as Alon’s wife Yarden and their daughter Geffen. Slifer detailed the horror faced by her family. For a while Slifer’s mother, Diana Krompas, was in touch via text with the Gats and then they lost contact. On Oct. 8 information began trickling out about their family. “We saw a video of Kineret being led out of our home barefoot walking in the street, her hands zip-tied. We learned Carmel was missing. And then we learned that Yarden and Alon and Geffen were missing.” Ultimately Alon and Geffen escaped their captors.
The next day, while scouring videos on the Washington Post, she saw a video of Kineret “being marched down the street and then another video of her body laying lifelss.” She had to break the news to her mother Diana who then called the family in Israel.
Yarden was held hostage until she was released in late November. As people were released, children who were freed in November said that Carmel, an occupational therapist by profession, was doing yoga with the children to help them cope with the trauma of being held hostage. Carmel passed along the message to tell her loved ones that “she’s safe and she’s there and for her family not to worry.”
Slifer emphasized what American Jews can do to help the hostages is to make sure they aren’t forgotten.
“It is overwhelming. The feeling of helplessness and distance that we feel living in the United States. But, the little bit we can do here is actually a lot. The U.S. is Israel’s biggest ally — its biggest supporter. And people like you are so important to helping that allyship and helping that support and telling the stories making sure that the hostages are at the forefront of this because until every hostage is released, every hostage is home, there is no end to this — there is no end of the war.”
Slifer said that she will continue telling Carmel’s story until all the hostages are home.