Rescued Hostage, Hostage Family Share Message of Hope to Over 1,000 at Yeshiva University

Luis Har, who survived 128 days in captivity, and parents of the still-captive Hersh Goldberg-Polin, shared stories of despair and hopes after six months of peril, with the story of Passover looming large in their minds in the coming days.
April 13, 2024
Over 1,000 gathered at Yeshiva University’s Sacks-Herenstein Center in New York on April 7th to mark a half year since the October 7th attacks on Israel.

To mark half a year since the attacks on Israel on October 7th, the Yeshiva University (YU) community in New York convened at the Sacks-Herenstein Center for an emotional evening on Sunday, April 7th. Over 1,000 people—students, faculty and community members—came to the Upper East Side campus for the program. The evening featured  Luis Har, 70, who survived 128 days of captivity in Gaza, as well as the family of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a 23-year old hostage still in captivity after being abducted from the Nova Music Festival.

The evening opened with a charge from YU’s Erica Brown, Vice Provost for Values and Leadership and Director of the Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.

“Almost six months ago today we gathered here in this same room in shock and bewilderment in sadness and in fear we did not understand then the full dimensions of the tragedy of October 7th…yet here we are again 6 months later. Israel has been at War for 184 days,” Brown told the audience.

YU President Rabbi Dr. Ari Bauman reminded the attendees that these times are historic and challenged them to rise to the occasion.

“Sometime soon in the not so distant future new history books will be written about October 7th,” Bauman said. “They will describe the terror that took place in the 75th year of Israel’s statehood and they will describe its aftermath when those history books are written we will look back on this time each one of us sitting in this room and we will be asked about our role in this story did we all do what we could to end this war to fight antisemitism? with all of our abilities bring every Soldier and every hostage home?”

Before the parents of Hersh spoke, a video package was played, chronicling the efforts by his family to keep the plight of the hostages in the news cycle. At the end of the video package, his father Jon Polin made an impassioned plea.

“Our goal is Passover: Chag Haveyrut—the holiday of freedom, that our hostages are home and they are filling chairs with their families at every table. And it’s in about 20 days so we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Hersh’s mother, Rachel Goldberg, then spoke from behind the lectern with a “184” sticker over her heart. After recounting her family’s ordeal, she tied it all back together with a plea for unity and peace.

“Remember, even before October 7th, we had a lot of fracturing in our community, not just in Israel but across all our Jewish communities. In many ways, we have not been as loving, open, and compassionate toward each other as we could be. Rabbi Goldberg explained that we must first take three steps back to create a space for peace to exist, to create a space for the peace that we’re inviting. And then, before we can even have tha peace come, we must look to our left and acknowledge, ‘Oh my gosh, there are voices over there that are different.’ And we have to look to our right and say, ‘There are people with attitudes and hashkafot that are more to the right of me.’ And my daughter Levi said, ‘and then you have to look yourself in the eye, and you have to own it forward. Am I making room for people to be different from me and still be my people?’”

After remarks by Hersh’s father Jon Polin, a trio of students led the crowd in the singing of “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo” (“the whole entire world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is to have no fear at all”).

The next guest on stage was Luis Har, an Argentine-born grandfather who survived over four months of captivity in Gaza. Accompanied on stage by his daughter Natali and son-in-law Idan, Har spoke about how he was abducted along with four other family members from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on October 7th.

“It was in a very barbaric way, they broke and smashed everything that was in the house, shot at us, and it was a mazel that none of us were hit by the excessive shooting,” Har said through translation. Har recounted his first day in captivity, first underground, then forced to dress in Muslim clothing and moved to a civilian home in Gaza. He shared the eerie details of what Hamas terrorists said to them.

“We were told, everyone should stay calm because the only reason we took you is that we should have the opportunity to use you as an exchange for the terrorists that are being held in Israeli prisons,’” Har said. All five of them spoke Spanish the entire time they were in captivity. They made up names for themselves so they could have a code to talk about what was happening around them. Three of the women were released from captivity in a hostage exchange in November, leaving Har and 62-year old Fernando Maman.

Har then shared the story of the day they were rescued. It began with a bomb dropping nearby at 2:00 am.

“I rolled off my mattress toward the door, which was where the terrorists were standing,” Har said. “I heard them call my name, ‘Luis, come this way, come this way,’ and we quickly started to crawl on our hands and knees, and suddenly I heard somebody scream, Luis, it’s Tal, we’ve come to bring you back home.’” The soldiers called out, “the diamonds are in our hands.”  The next day, Luis thought about those words and thought “ the true diamonds are really the soldiers who had come and risked their lives to save us.”

Har’s son in law Idan then spoke.

“Seeing the power of the civilians in Israel, how they formed the hostages center spontaneously, how the civilians started to assist each other and to be there for each other, how the Jewish communities in the world did everything and still doing everything in order to support from far but also coming and sharing and giving and seeing and observing in Israel, This is what gives us hope,” Idan said. “For us being here today, it’s really closure, and I’ll tell you why um, our family’s first trip, the first awareness trip to the US, was early November when Natali came to New York along with her sister Rinat, and she happened to arrive at YU. She spoke in front of 500 girls, shared her story, shared her fear, shared her willingness, and her hope that her father will come back home.”

While the survival story was inspiring, the next speaker reminded the crowd that there is still work to do. Current student and Israel Defense Forces veteran Kfir Slonimski spoke about how his battalion commander and crew were taken to Gaza and remain there to this day. He then read a poem titled, “The Silver Platter” by Natan Altermann about the sacrifices made for the State of Israel. The evening ended with singing and dancing, but if it can be summed up in one quote, it would be a reiteration from Vice Provost Brown, midway through the night.

As Rabbi Bauman said, “We hoped for a miracle and we had a miracle, and we hope for another.”

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