‘Bring him home’: A Pittsburgh rabbi’s personal connection to a Hamas hostage
Israel at warAbducted from a festival of peace and unity

‘Bring him home’: A Pittsburgh rabbi’s personal connection to a Hamas hostage

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut recounts his memories of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, now being held by terrorists in Gaza

An undated photo of Hersh Goldberg-Polin. (Jon Polin via JTA)
An undated photo of Hersh Goldberg-Polin. (Jon Polin via JTA)

On the night of Oct. 6, dual Israel-U.S. citizen Hersh Goldberg-Polin said goodbye to his parents, left his home in Jerusalem and traveled south to the Negev desert for the Nova music festival to celebrate his 23rd birthday.

Thousands of people from Israel and many other countries danced all night, but at dawn sirens alerted them to a rocket attack. Goldberg-Polin ran into a bomb shelter with his close friend Aner Shapiro and about two dozen other young festival-goers.

As Hamas terrorists lobbed hand grenades into the small shelter, Shapiro grabbed them and flung them back at the terrorists. About 90 minutes later, three grenades got past him and blew up. Shapiro was killed, as were most of the others in the shelter. Goldberg-Polin’s arm was blown off below the elbow.

We know this from the testimony of three survivors who hid under bodies pretending to be dead. A video clip surfaced showing Goldberg-Polin being thrown into a pickup truck along with other hostages and taken to Gaza. He had managed to tie on a tourniquet to slow his bleeding. This is the last time he was seen alive.

Goldberg-Polin’s mother, Rachel Goldberg, saw two messages from her son when she turned on her phone that morning. “One said, ‘I love you,’ and one said, ‘I’m sorry,’” she told an interviewer. “As a mother, I knew immediately something horrible was happening.”

More than 260 people were brutally murdered at the Nova, a festival that was intended to celebrate unity and love.

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of Pittsburgh’s Congregation Poale Zedeck, was close to the Goldberg-Polin family when they both lived in Richmond, Virginia, 15 years ago. He recalled Hersh as a cute little boy going to children’s groups and running around what was then Yolkut’s shul in Richmond.

Yolkut described Hersh’s parents, Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin, as “incredibly beloved and involved members of the community.” He remembered them as people who nurtured relationships “across the entire spectrum of the Jewish community.” People loved them, looked to them for leadership and cherished their friendship, Yolkut said. They made a difference everywhere they lived.

The Goldberg-Polin family made aliyah in 2008 with their 8 ½-year-old Hersh and his two younger sisters, Yolkut said. In their early years, they sent updates back to family and friends describing the highs and lows of life as new olim (immigrants). In one of their stories they shared how concerned they were about their children learning to speak Hebrew in school. Six months after they arrived they were thrilled to get a note from Hersh’s teacher telling them that for the first time all year Hersh spoke to the class in Hebrew. The class was learning about the Holocaust and he got up the courage to speak in front of the class in Hebrew. Hersh told about a Holocaust survivor they had known in Richmond. Rachel was moved by the note: It meant so much to her that Hersh finally spoke in Hebrew and that what he chose to speak about was something so meaningful.

On another update from Israel that Yolkut received in 2009, Rachel described stopping at a tent set up by the parents of Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped soldier whom the entire country of Israel was praying for. She started to speak to his parents but burst out crying: “I was looking into the eyes of my worst nightmare,” she said.

Her worst nightmare has come true and now her son is the kidnapped boy: not a soldier, taken in war, but a civilian, taken from a festival for peace.

In interviews on network news programs, Rachel describes Hersh as smart, laid-back, fun, a voracious reader and a soccer lover with a lot of friends. Since first grade, when he had a teacher who sparked an interest in the world, Hersh has had the dream of traveling the world. At every birthday or holiday, his parents would give him a gift related to travel: a globe, a book, a map. He has tickets to travel on Dec. 27 to India and other points east. Rachel is holding out hope that he will make that trip.

Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin have become the unofficial spokespeople for the families of the hostages, meeting with President Biden, Israeli President Herzog, many news agencies. Rachel Goldberg recently spoke before the United Nations.

Yolkut said he remembers Rachel and Jon as “powerhouses” in the community. Now they are powerhouses advocating for the release of their son and the 240 other people from 40 different countries, brutally kidnapped and held hostage by Hamas terrorists.

Yolkut sees a connection between the Oct. 27, 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue attack and the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel.

“We are seeing two faces of perhaps the oldest hatred in the world,” Yolkut said. “Whatever other veneer of ideology is overlaid on it, both of these are one and the same….If anything makes these [attacks] different than [those of other times in Jewish history]…it is the notion that the United States, both its government and its citizenry, overwhelmingly stand with us.”

For solace, Yolkut turns to the prophets.

“One of the most powerful biblical images for this kind of pain is Jeremiah, who invokes the image of the matriarch Rachel crying for her children being led out to exile,” he said. “For millennia, when searching for solace in a moment of incomprehensible pain [we turn to the image of] a mother standing before G-d, crying out for her children. Jeremiah addresses ‘Mother Rachel’: Restrain your voice from weeping — the children will return to their borders.”

For Yolkut, the image of the biblical matriarch Rachel and the image of Rachel Goldberg have coalesced.

“I hope that her son will come home along with all the other children who have been ripped away from their parents,” he said. PJC

Simone Shapiro is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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