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Rabbis offer pastoral care for those traumatized by Oct. 7 Hamas attack

Amit Soussana (r), who was held hostage by Hamas and released hugs a friend near her house where she was kidnapped during the Oct. 7 attack on the kibbutz, on Jan. 29, 2024, in Kfar Aza, Israel. Many of the towns and kibbutzim attacked on that day remain completely evacuated, with their residents having relocated to other parts of Israel.
Amir Levy
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Getty Images
Amit Soussana (r), who was held hostage by Hamas and released hugs a friend near her house where she was kidnapped during the Oct. 7 attack on the kibbutz, on Jan. 29, 2024, in Kfar Aza, Israel. Many of the towns and kibbutzim attacked on that day remain completely evacuated, with their residents having relocated to other parts of Israel.

The entrance to the Shefayim beachside hotel just north of Tel Aviv has a grim reminder of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

"There is a huge board here with names of two dozen people who were taken hostages to Gaza," says Rabbi Yael Vurgan as she points to the ceiling-high sign in the lobby.

Some of the hostages have been returned.

"The red dots are the five hostages from Kfar Aza that are still in Gaza," she says. "It's really unbearable that there are still people — young people — hostages in Gaza."

Kfar Aza is a kibbutz where Hamas militants killed scores of residents. Survivors have been evacuated to this beach resort and have no idea when they'll be able to return home.

Giroa Almog (right) Varda and David Goldstein as well as Omri Almog, hold up portraits of Omri's sister, 49-year-old Chen Goldstein and her three children in a hotel in Tel Aviv, Israel, for evacuated Israelis, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. The Israeli mother and her three children were abducted by Hamas militants from their home in the kibbutz of Kfar Aza on Oct. 7.
Ohad Zwigenberg / AP
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AP
Giroa Almog (right) Varda and David Goldstein as well as Omri Almog, hold up portraits of Omri's sister, 49-year-old Chen Goldstein and her three children in a hotel in Tel Aviv, Israel, for evacuated Israelis, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. The Israeli mother and her three children were abducted by Hamas militants from their home in the kibbutz of Kfar Aza on Oct. 7.

Kfar Aza is one of the 10 kibbutzim near Gaza that Vurgan has served for the last five years — leading Shabbat services, preparing kids for their bar or bat mitzvahs and more recently attending funerals.

Since October, she's has been to more than 60 — some with multiple coffins because militants killed entire families.

"People who are so traumatized have a need to talk about what happened to them," Vurgan says, "although we might think that they don't want to talk about it. But people really, really need to tell their story again and again."

They also want to hear what their tradition has to offer during these painful days. The Oct. 7 attacks on Israel displaced tens of thousands of Jews from their kibbutzim near Gaza. Since then, rabbis have been crisscrossing the country offering trauma-informed pastoral care to victims.

Questions of faith pervade the lives of survivors

Those who've been displaced from their kibbutzim have ended up all over the country — some like those from Kfar Aza at sea-side hotels. Others are cast out from their rural lives, now living in big cities.

"Now we will see the little kindergarteners," says Techelet Grabowsky as she walks past a make-shift indoor playground outside the basement conference rooms of the five star Orient Hotel in Jerusalem.

The sounds of toddlers from the kibbutz Or HaNer spill into the hall as Grabowsky, who helped set up in the kindergarten, opens the door.

"Hi guys!" she smiles as she greets the class. "These are the little ones — one year old until three year old."

Fifteen children in this room alone, playing with wooden blocks and tiny plastic kitchen sets.

Grabowsky and hundreds of others fled from their homes at Or HaNer, near Gaza, on Oct. 7. The day is still very present in her mind. She stares into the middle distance as she remembers a constant stream of text messages flooding her phone that morning. She could see Hamas fighters coming toward the kibbutz.

A general view of destruction  remains after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks at Kibbutz Kfar Aza close to the Gaza border as forensic analysis and investigation of the scenes continues on Nov. 21, 2023, in Kfar Aza, Israel.
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A general view of destruction remains after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks at Kibbutz Kfar Aza close to the Gaza border as forensic analysis and investigation of the scenes continues on Nov. 21, 2023, in Kfar Aza, Israel.

"I have the, like, 5 minutes choice," she says emphatically about the decision to stay and fight or flee with her family. "Understand the picture: My husband with a knife from the kitchen. I am with a machete from the backyard."

These were the only weapons they had to defend themselves as they packed their 4-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son into the car and sped away.

Eventually, the family ended up at the Orient Hotel, sharing one room.

"It's a miracle we are alive," Grabowsky says. While she's grateful every day, she says she's also left pleading with God, "Why us? Why now?"

A peacenick and a kibbutznik

Grabowsky describes herself as more spiritual than religious, but these questions of faith have become pressing the longer she's away from her home.

She feels betrayed by her own government, her own long-held belief that peace was possible and by the Gazans she'd work alongside for years. Grabowsky is a self-described "peacenik kibbutznik" who has reconsidered her views in recent months.

"We talk about the big rupture in believing in humanity, in the good of a person," she says. "Who's the other party we want to do so badly peace with? They don't want peace. They want to murder us all."

That's a broad-brush view of Palestinians many Israelis hold as military actions in Gaza continue. These questions of ultimate concern are common among those who wonder when or if they'll every be able to return to their kibbutzim and their simple, bucolic lives.

With help from rabbis, Grabowsky says she's reformulating a way of talking about her spirituality.

"I believe in good and bad. I believe in the Ten Commandments," she says.

The question for her now is how to respond when what has been done to her has left her home destroyed, her friends dead and her family in exile.

Scripture lends language to people too traumatized to speak

Among those offering pastoral care at hotels filled with displaced people is Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum. She recounts a recent visit with a family far from their home.

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum is among the rabbis offering pastoral care to victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. She also directs education programs at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute.
Jason DeRose / NPR
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NPR
Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum is among the rabbis offering pastoral care to victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. She also directs education programs at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute.

"I saw just as I entered one of the hotels, a child hiding himself underneath the table and holding on to the leg of the table," Elad-Applebaum says. "And I remember seeing his mother going down underneath the table and sitting next to him."

In the same way that the mother, traumatized herself, sought to comfort her child, Elad-Applebaum says rabbis figuratively sit underneath a table and hand Jews the tools that are closest to their hearts to understand and process the trauma of Oct. 7.

Elad-Applebaum has been a rabbi for more than two decades and helps direct Jerusalem's educational Shalom Hartman Institute.

"One of the first things that trauma creates is the loss of language," she says. "You just have no language for what you saw. You have no language for what your eyes witnessed, for what your heart trembles from."

But when one's own language fails, Elad-Applebaum says that's where scripture and tradition can lend words.

"At the beginning of the Torah — the Hebrew Bible — it says that God saw that there is an abyss," she says. "And only then sending his spirit onto it, he created light. So light is something you plant only on the abyss."

The aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that left more than 1,200 dead and hundreds taken hostage has been an abyss for many Israelis. It's also a dark time for the people of Gaza, where more than 26,000 have been killed through Israeli military action, according health officials there.

During the months Elad-Applebaum has been visiting the displaced victims of the Hamas attacks, she has kept these words from Psalm 1 close to her heart to keep herself and others from growing bitter:

"Blessed is the person who does not go in the ways of the cruel," she says, switching back and forth between English to Hebrew, "who does not stop where cruelty sits."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.