Fifteen years ago, Rachel Goldberg, the mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, one of the 220 hostages taken by Hamas earlier this month, had a chilling premonition. In 2009, Rachel stopped in at the 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.” Presciently, 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.
On the night of October 6, dual Israel-US 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. Hersh was going there to celebrate his 23rd birthday. Thousands of people from Israel and many other countries danced all night but at dawn sirens went off alerting people to a rocket attack. Hersh 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, Aner grabbed them, and with great courage and presence of mind, flung them back at the terrorists. After 90 minutes of this, tragically, three grenades got past him and blew up. Aner was killed, as were most of the others in the shelter. Hersh’s arm was blown off below the elbow.We know this because three survivors hid under the bodies pretending to be dead. A video clip surfaced showing Hersh being thrown into a pickup truck along with other hostages and taken away to Gaza. He had managed to tie on a tourniquet to slow his bleeding. This is the last time he was seen alive.
Hersh’s mother, Rachel, saw two messages from Hersh when she turned on her phone that morning. “One said, ‘I love you,’ and one said, ‘I’m sorry.’ As a mother, I knew immediately something horrible was happening.” Over 260 people were brutally murdered at Nova. The Festival for Unity and Love had turned into an orgy of bloodshed and hatred. 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 fifteen years ago. He recalls Hersh as a cute little boy going to children’s groups and running around what was then Yolkut’s shul in Richmond.
Yolkut describes Hersh’s parents, Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin as “incredibly beloved and involved members of the community.” He knew them as people who built bridges and nurtured relationships “across the entire spectrum of the Jewish community.” People loved them, looked to them for leadership, and cherished their friendship. They were a couple that made a difference in all the places they lived.
Yolkut speaks warmly and with admiration of Rachel Goldberg, mother of three, who was a devoted and dynamic teacher with a wicked sense of humor and a gregarious personality. She “had a mission” as an educator who taught for the Melton Program in Richmond. The Goldberg Polin family made aliyah in 2008 with their 8 ½ year old Hersh and his two younger sisters.
In their early years, they sent updates back to family and friends describing the highs and lows of life as new olim. 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 speaking 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.
Rachel lovingly 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 travelling 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 for December 27 to go 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 gave a passionate speech in front of the United Nations last week. Rabbi Yolkut remembers Rachel and Jon as powerhouses in the community.
Now they are powerhouses advocating for the release of their son and the 220 other people of 40 different countries, brutally kidnapped and held hostage by Hamas terrorists. According to the Geneva Convention, the United Nations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, “the taking of civilians as hostages is prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever.” Rachel Goldberg and Jonathan Polin call on the United States, the United Nations and the nations of the world to demand that the Red Cross workers in Gaza inspect the hostages, provide them with medical care, and ensure that Hamas releases them all immediately.
Rachel Goldberg’s mantra, first directed to her son and now to herself is “Stay strong, survive. Stay strong, survive.” We are about to observe the fifth anniversary of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue. Rabbi Yolkut connects the October 27 Pittsburgh terrorist attack and the October 7 Israel terrorist attack: “We are seeing two faces of perhaps the oldest hatred in the world. 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.”
This is a time of tremendous pain throughout the Jewish world, pain and fear. For solace, for comfort, Rabbi 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.
For millennia, when searching for solace in a moment of incomprehensible pain [we turn to the image of] a mother standing before God, crying out for her children. Jeremiah address “Mother Rachel:” Restrain your voice from weeping: the children will return to their borders.”
For Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, the image of the biblical matriarch Rachel and the image of Rachel Goldberg have blurred together. “I hope that her son will come home along with all the other children who have been ripped away from their parents.” The Israeli government has decided to close Kever Rochel (the gravesite of Rachel our foremother) even though tonight is her yahrzeit. But we are taught, “the gates of prayer are never closed.”