Families of captives held in Gaza and ultra-Orthodox Jews prepare for Shabbat in Jerusalem, Feb. 9, 2024. Credit: Rachel Moore.
Families of captives held in Gaza and ultra-Orthodox Jews prepare for Shabbat in Jerusalem, Feb. 9, 2024. Credit: Rachel Moore.
featureIsrael at War

Hostage families embraced in unifying Shabbat in Jerusalem

Ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis get together to pray for the safe return of kidnapped captives.

Thirty-six families of the Israelis remaining in Hamas captivity came together recently to experience a Shabbat in Jerusalem.

The event was the brainchild of Shelly Shem-Tov, mother of hostage Omer, 21, and Tzili Schneider, the founder of Kesher Yehudi, an organization created to build friendships between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis who would never normally have contact with each other.

There was great diversity in the families that attended the Shabbat gathering. The vast majority were secular, and many of the participants had never observed a full Shabbat in the past. Volunteers and staff from Kesher Yehudi pledged to maintain a connection with the families. The families of the hostages were invited through the Mateh community, created for the hostage families to stay in contact with each other.

After arriving on Friday, a musical pre-Shabbat Kabbalat Shabbat was led by Rabbi Shmuel Greyniman from Safed, followed by a group candle lighting for all of the women with the names of all of the hostages. At the Shabbat dinner, families suggested songs for the group to sing in honor of their family members.

Praying together in the morning, fathers of hostages were called up to the Torah; some of them had never had an aliyah before, or since their bar mitzvahs. All of the hostages’ names were included in the prayers, one by one, and the singing of “Acheynu” [“Our Brothers”] was very emotional.

A panel of mothers spoke about their kidnapped family members. It included Meirav Leshem Gonen—mother of hostage Romy Gonen, the young woman seen in reports being dragged through streets in Gaza by her hair; Meirav Berger, the mother of Agam Berger, who was last seen dressed in pajamas while being led to a car; Aviva Siegel, who was taken hostage from Kibbutz Kfar Aza with her husband, Keith; and Orli Gilboa, whose daughter Daniela was kidnapped from the Supernova music festival.

Siegel was returned to Israel after 51 days in captivity, while her husband who is a U.S. citizen remains in captivity.

Niva Wenkert, hostage Omer Wenkert’s mother, told the group that it was the first time since Oct. 7 she had disconnected from an endless and constant stream of checking digital information, news and social media. “You got me to disconnect from all of that for a full day, and yet to feel connected, busy, and active and it was the most incredible experience.”

Jews sing together in Jerusalem, Feb. 10, 2024. Credit: Rachel Moore.

After the Havdalah ceremony at the end of Shabbat, all of the men got together in a circle, arm in arm, and the women likewise, singing and holding one another. It was a rare sight to see the embrace together of ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis praying together for the swift return of the captives.

Shem-Tov summed up: “Now, at this moment, Shabbat is over, and I can’t describe in words the amount of love and unity that there was this Shabbat because it makes me so emotional. I had no idea what a big, connecting, unifying event this would turn out to be.

“What happened this Shabbat was a connection between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis and the families of the abductees and everything in between. The connection we will have here is the connection we, the Jewish people, need to have for generations. This is the very unity we need!”

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates