On Chanukah, Israeli survivors of Oct. 7 share stories of terror and bravery with Pittsburgh
Israel at warFinding light amid the darkness

On Chanukah, Israeli survivors of Oct. 7 share stories of terror and bravery with Pittsburgh

Two months after Hamas attack, four Israeli visitors recount horror and light a candle

Ofer Kisin, Rony Kisin, Hila Fakliro and Shani Teshuva, survivors of the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, speak during a Chanukah candle lighting ceremony at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill on Dec. 7. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Ofer Kisin, Rony Kisin, Hila Fakliro and Shani Teshuva, survivors of the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, speak during a Chanukah candle lighting ceremony at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill on Dec. 7. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Seated adjacent to an empty chair and one lit candle, four survivors of the Oct. 7 attack in Israel welcomed Chanukah by articulating harrowing narratives inside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill.

As hundreds of attendees silently listened to the survivors’ words, Hila Fakliro, Ofer Kissin, Rony Kissin and Shani Teshuva detailed the horrors they experienced two months ago on a day many now call “Black Shabbat.”

For 40 minutes on Dec. 7, Fakliro, Teshuva and the Kissins took turns returning to Oct. 7.

That morning, Fakliro was working as a bartender at the Re’im Music Festival. Around 6:30 a.m., Hamas terrorists began firing rockets. Fakliro said she and a co-worker sheltered in the bar, but their manager eventually directed them to run. They waited near the festival’s entrance. People raced toward her and shouted that terrorists were approaching. Fakliro heard gunfire. A police officer directed her and others toward Ofakim. She ran, stopped, made it to Moshav Patish, saw a video of Hamas terrorists attacking nearby and finally understood what was happening.

Over the day, and as a result of Hamas attacks, an estimated 1,200 Israelis were murdered and about 240 others were taken hostage.

Shattered holiday and survival in Kibbutz Kerem Shalom

Ofer Kissin and Rony Kissin were celebrating Simchat Torah with their children and grandchildren in Kibbutz Kerem Shalom.

“It was the first time I could gather all my family — all my four children and my grandsons — in five years. I was so excited that I made so many meals I didn’t have room on the table for plates,” Rony Kissin said.

An alarm sounded in the kibbutz around 6 a.m., Ofer Kissin said.

More than 10 terrorists, according to Israel’s Channel 12 News, breached two fences before blasting through a concrete wall surrounding the kibbutz.

A security team battled the terrorists for hours, Ofer Kissin said.

A decorative menorah is illuminated on the first night of Chanukah outside the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill on Dec. 7. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

As fighting continued, the Kissins performed multiple duties. The first involved family: The Kissins’ daughter lives four houses away.

The grandkids were hungry, Ofer Kissin said, “so I called the head of the emergency team in our kibbutz and told him people are shooting outside the door, and I’m taking a basket of food to my daughter’s house.”

Kissin was instructed not to go; the grandfather dismissed the directive, ran to his daughter’s house, deposited the food and ran back amid the gunfire, he said.

Shortly thereafter, he and Rony — the Kissins are medics — packed up emergency equipment and headed toward the fighting.

“I was running first, and she was running after me,” Ofer Kissin said. “The A Team is on one side and the terrorists are on the other side.”

The Kissins entered a house and began treating someone who was “badly injured.” All the while, fighting raged nearby, the couple said. Nearly seven hours after Hamas entered Kerem Shalom, members of the Israel Defense Forces finally arrived.

“There was a lot of luck that day,” Ofer Kissin said. “We are here to tell the story but we are lucky to be here. It was not obvious.”

Minutes afford miracles in Kibbutz Zikim

Most Saturday mornings, Shani Teshuva leaves Kibbutz Zikim between 6 and 6:30 a.m. to bike near the beach, she said. On Oct. 7, she woke up, noticed it wasn’t as hot as the week before and decided to stay home a little longer.

“I gave myself an extra 10 minutes and those extra 10 minutes are the reason that I am here alive,” she said.

At 6:29 a.m., rockets began firing.

Given the kibbutz’s location (about 500 meters from Gaza), “we have eight seconds to get to shelter,” Teshuva said.

Shani Teshuva, a survivor of the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, clutches an empty chair that symbolizes ‘every single one of the people that were kidnapped.’ (Photo by Joshua Franzos)

Along with her husband and two children, ages 14 and 12, the family feverishly descended downstairs and entered their safe room.

She and her husband noticed an open window.

“We laid on the floor covering our children,” Teshuva said. During a period of calm, “we got up, closed the iron window, we shut the door tight and we stayed in the safe room.”

Teshuva heard gunfire but didn’t recognize the sound.

“We are familiar with the army’s, from training,” she said. “And we are used to rockets. It’s unbelievable to say, but we can handle rockets.”

The sound of unfamiliar shooting increased.

There was a battle 30 feet from Teshuva’s home, she said: The head of the kibbutz received a call from the head of security in the area, saying, “There are terrorists coming in through the ocean, from land and from the air.”

That message gave the kibbutz’s response team two minutes, but the team wasn’t comprised of young soldiers, Teshuva said. “These are people that have families.”

The response team, which consisted of individuals aged 25-70, spread out and noticed an army truck approaching the kibbutz’s fence.

“The response team thought it was the army coming to help us,” she said. “But as people jumped out of the car, one of them jumped with an RPG, and that’s the second they realized these are terrorists. These are Hamas terrorists.”

Fighting lasted nearly three hours, she continued. Terrorists tried entering the kibbutz “in total over 10 times.”

Teshuva remained in the safe room with her children until 10 p.m. Her husband left, however, first to extinguish a fire after a rocket hit a nearby car, and next after he was called to the kibbutz headquarters.

A cyberattack prevented the use of phones, so her husband’s mission “was to run from house to house, under fire, and let people know that they’re not allowed to leave the house or kibbutz because there were terrorists all around.”

“Only later did we learn how many miracles we had that day in Zikim,” Teshuva said. “We have family and friends that were killed, slaughtered, raped in all the communities, all throughout the Gaza envelope. We’re one big community and you know each other, everywhere.

“Each and every one of us that’s here alive, we had our own individual miracle and our communities had miracles that kept us alive.”

Be a witness and a storyteller

Weeks before the Dec. 7 event, Jason Kunzman, the JCC’s president and CEO, returned from a mission to Israel.

After learning that the JCC Association of North America and Ministry of Diaspora Affairs were sending survivors of the Oct. 7 attack abroad to tell their stories, Kunzman knew that Pittsburgh needed to be among the 20 cities selected, he told the Chronicle.

“I could not be more proud of having had the opportunity to host something like this — not only as a means for those stories to be shared, but to lift up our community in the way that we continue to explicitly demonstrate our support for Israel,” he said.

Community members applaud during a Dec. 7 program at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Joshua Franzos)

Brian Schreiber, the JCC’s chief external affairs officer and special adviser to the CEO, said the event presented a good opportunity to learn from one another.

“We can learn from them to be the storytellers — to continue to be witnesses of what happened to people that survived Oct. 7; we can be in community with them. And they can learn from us what it means to have a supportive community in the Diaspora that cares about their well-being.”

Throughout most of the program, hundreds of attendees sat quietly in the JCC. Moments before the event’s conclusion, however, Teshuva clutched the empty chair beside her and said it represents “every single one of the people that were kidnapped.”

We won’t stop until everybody’s home,” she continued. “Let’s keep that in our hearts and in our prayers every single day.”

Teshuva’s statement was met with thunderous applause.

Keep the light going

Along with participating in the program, which was hosted by the JCC and Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the visiting Israelis participated in several public and private events in Pittsburgh. Along with joining a press conference at the Federation’s office on Friday morning, Fakliro, Teshuva and the Kissins are scheduled to meet with Pittsburgh’s Israeli community this afternoon.

Hours before ascending the stage in the JCC to light a candle for the first night of Chanukah, the four Israelis met privately with survivors and family members of those murdered in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

Following the event, Marty Gaynor and Dan Leger, Talmud study partners and survivors of the synagogue shooting, stressed the importance of standing beside the Israelis to publicly celebrate the Festival of Lights.

“I’m just grateful that we had the opportunity to be here with them, and to show them support and solidarity,” Gaynor said. “Finding ways to connect and show kindness are so important, and this gave us that opportunity.”

“Rony [Kissin] said that what we need to do now is bring light into the world,” Leger said. “Being together with people who have been through a horrific experience, and were not crushed by it, is really life-affirming.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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