From Our CEO
An End to the Counting
January 19th, 2024

I was in Israel last week, on what were days 96 -100 since the hostages were abducted by Hamas into Gaza. Everywhere you look, you see their names and faces — on placards lining the corridor of Ben-Gurion airport, on the screens of ATMs, on the walls of convenience stores. In Tel Aviv, a giant banner almost covering the side of a building features an illustration of the hostages, the Bibas children easily identifiable by their red hair.

To mark the 100th day of captivity, this past Sunday, businesses and restaurants across Israel closed for 100 minutes. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered over a 24-hour period in Tel Aviv’s newly named “Hostages Square.” A mock Hamas tunnel was erected so that people could experience for themselves, just momentarily, the suffocating darkness that many hostages endure day after day.

Here in New York, our community has also mobilized to keep the story of the hostages front and center. Last Friday, with our support, the Hostage Forum led a rally in front of the United Nations, where a large crowd gathered to mark 100 days.

On Sunday we hosted a powerful program with two sisters, Sharon Aloni Cunio and Danielle Aloni, who were kidnapped along with their young children — and released after 52 days and 49 days, respectively. But their ordeal is far from over, with Sharon’s husband, David, still being held in Gaza with three family members. 

In Westchester on Tuesday, we co-hosted a major program at Temple Israel Center in White Plains to pray, recite the names of hostages, and hear from Israelis who were living in Sderot before the war, as well as from the uncle of Shiri Bibas. We also arranged for a public display of massive screens on the Westchester County Center calling for the hostages’ return.

UJA Federation of New York >>

Much of the American Jewish community has been transfixed by the plight of the hostages, as we should be. And we must continue to do all we can to focus public attention on the hostages until all are returned home. 

There’s another deeply traumatizing daily count in Israel since October 7, which may receive less attention here: 530 Israeli soldiers killed to date. 194 in Gaza.

Many thousands of soldiers are currently fighting deep in Gaza. That translates to tens of thousands of parents, spouses, and children who can’t sleep at night, their lives largely on hold. Weeks may pass before they hear from their loved ones. And what they fear most is the ringing of the doorbell, army officers coming to break the news of a family member killed in battle.

Since the war began, soldiers on active duty have been joined by hundreds of thousands of reservists who have been called up, leaving their homes, families, and jobs — their lives and family structures disrupted.

There are many now calling these soldiers Israel’s “greatest generation,” and stories of their extraordinary strength of character and determination appear daily in the Israeli press. Ironically, before October 7, with protests raging over a proposed judicial overhaul, some in Israel speculated whether reservists would be willing to serve if the need arose. All of that has been cast aside. The fierce patriotism of the soldiers leading the defense of our Jewish homeland is awe-inspiring, and we will be forever indebted to them for their heroism — and sacrifice.

And there's been enormous sacrifice.

The reason I was in Israel last week was to attend the shiva for a relative killed in Gaza, David Schwartz, z”l. He was an amazing 26-year-old, one of Israel's best and brightest, who'd celebrated the third anniversary of his wedding to my cousin the day before his death. David was killed together with Yakir Hexter, z”l, one of his closest friends and chavruta (study partner). Two friends who paid the ultimate price for country.

In a beautiful eulogy, David’s wife, Meital, said: 

"We wanted to build a family, but in place of this I join the family of the grieving. We dreamt so many dreams that are shattered, the future that we longed to build together remains a dream….   

"You always told me that you are ok if I am ok, and you told me that I am strong. So I promise you that I will be strong. This will take me time, but I promise you this. I know that this is what you want.”  

We must pray for the bereaved — and for all of Israel's soldiers and their families. For their safe return home and the safe return of the hostages.

And for a time when we can stop counting.  

Shabbat shalom