Testing ‘how much trauma one can hold’

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Testing ‘how much trauma one can hold’
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By Dylan Jaffe | djaffe@alextimes.com                                                                  Denise Dunbar | ddunbar@alextimes.com

 Many around the world are still trying to process the gruesome videos of murders, rapes and mutilations that were released by Hamas following their surprise invasion of Israel on October 7. 

For Alexandria’s Jewish community – which numbers around 5,000, according to the Institute of Southern Jewish Life – these are not just events that happened to strangers in a faraway land. Rather, these are family members and friends who have been terrorized, taken hostage or killed. 

To better understand how the invasion of Israel is impacting Alexandria’s Jewish community, we spoke with four Alexandria residents: a local rabbi; a resident who used to live in Israel; a resident who grew up with the mother of a young man taken hostage; and a Christian, whose husband is Jewish, who returned from a Holy Land pilgrimage days before the attacks.

This story is a localized look at how the sudden, brutal attack in Israel has affected Alexandrians, not a wider look at geopolitical issues in the Middle East. 

The attack

Thousands of missiles were launched from the Gaza Strip early on October 7, leaving fiery streaks in the morning sky. The missiles came raining down on different parts of Israel on what is one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar – Simchat Torah – which celebrates the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings.

The attacks occurred 50 years and one day after the surprise launch of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared war on Hamas, the Palestinian militant group and governing body of the Gaza Strip. 

Hamas has fired around 2,200 missiles all over Israel, according to an ABC News report from October 19, particularly near populated cities such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and cities in southern Israel. The surprise aerial assault was accompanied by a ground invasion using bulldozers, paragliders, boats and thousands of armed Hamas fighters. 

More than 1,400 people in Israel were killed during the invasion, including at least 32 U.S. nationals, according to The Washington Post. The region stands on the brink of a wider war, as Israel prepares to potentially invade Gaza, while regional Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, which, like Hamas, is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, appear poised to become involved. 

‘A constant knot in my stomach’ 

The surprise attack has left many Jewish Alexandrians distraught, afraid and angry. Alexandria resident Sharon Limmer is consumed by what has happened. 

“I am watching or listening to the news constantly. Israel Radio has news headlines on the hour every hour, so I try to catch those,” Limmer said. “There’s a constant knot in my stomach. It’s what many of my friends are feeling.” 

Limmer lived in Israel for 17 years and considers herself both American and Israeli. 

“[My family] lived in Israel for a couple of years when I was a kid and then when I was 18 I moved back, and I was there for another 17 years, and served in the army. My kids were born there,” Limmer said. 

Limmer, whose sister is a Hebrew-to-English translator in Israel, said it feels like everyone in the whole country is connected within one or two degrees of separation. 

“We consider the whole country our family,” Limmer said. “Basically, I have seven million relatives there.” 

Limmer’s sister lives in the city of Bet Shemesh, which is situated between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. 

“There have been a few rockets landing in the area and a few people were injured there, but nothing catastrophic like other places,” Limmer said. “The whole country is affected. But on a personal level, they’re feeling relatively safe because of where they are.” 

As soon as she heard about the attacks, Limmer began trying to both contact friends and relatives in Israel and to grasp what had happened. 

“It was a huge shock and my thoughts went immediately to all the people I know in that area [near Gaza],” Limmer said. “I didn’t watch all of the videos because I’d been warned. People who would videotape murders and rapes and brag about it. … They decapitated babies. It will absolutely stick with everyone. You can

Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared war on Hamas, the Palestinian militant group and governing body of the Gaza Strip. 

Hamas has fired around 2,200 missiles all over Israel, according to an ABC News report from October 19, particularly near populated cities such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and cities in southern Israel. The surprise aerial assault was accompanied by a ground invasion using bulldozers, paragliders, boats and thousands of armed Hamas fighters. 

More than 1,400 people in Israel were killed during the invasion, including at least 32 U.S. nationals, according to The Washington Post. The region stands on the brink of a wider war, as Israel prepares to potentially invade Gaza, while regional Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, which, like Hamas, is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, appear poised to become involved. 

A friend’s son taken hostage 

Rachel Goldberg grew up in Chicago with a friend of the same name. 

Through the years, Goldberg lost touch with her high school friend, but, because of the deep interconnectedness between many American Jews and Israel, Goldberg has remained aware of her old friend through her Israeli brother, who works with the other Rachel’s husband. 

The other Rachel’s son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, is a 23-year-old who, like thousands of other young Israelis, gathered at the Supernova trance music festival in the Negev Desert, about three miles from the Gaza border, on the evening of October 6. 

“It was a festival where you sleep over there, people had tents and you camp out and it’s just 24 hours of music and stuff like that,” Goldberg said. “He was there with some friends.” 

When Hersh and his friends heard the shooting in the early hours of October 7, they ran to nearby shelters, which are in most public places in Israel. Goldberg said she was told that Hersh was consoling a young woman inside the shelter who was terrified when catastrophe struck. 

“His best friend was standing at the door, and when grenades came their way his best friend would pick them up and throw them away from them,” Goldberg said. “And one rolled inside and Hersh picked it up, and I don’t know it must have gone off in his hand or something [because] his arm was severed. Somehow he made a tourniquet out of his shirt.” 

After a while the shooting calmed down. Goldberg said she was told those inside the shelter began hearing people call out, “If you can stand up, come out.” Possibly because Hersh, who according to the Times of Israel was trained as a medic, was in need of immediate medical help, he went out of the shelter. 

“That was the last he was seen,” Goldberg said. “The last thing they heard is his cell phone was at the Gaza border at around noon on [October 7].” 

Goldberg said Hersh desperately required medical attention, as did many others who were wounded. 

“Now they’re saying there are probably 200 hostages: infants, elderly, handicapped, everything in between,” Goldberg said. 

Heroic story with a local twist 

One of the best-known stories of individual heroism in the hours following the Hamas invasion of Israel has an Alexandria connection. 

The CBS show “60 Minutes” on October 15 featured a segment about how Israeli journalist Amir Tibon and his wife Miri Bernovsky-Tibon were rescued by Amir’s father – retired major general Noam Tibon – after hiding in their home’s “safe room” with their two young daughters for almost nine hours following the Hamas attack on their kibbutz, Nahal Oz. 

When Amir and Miri heard the shriek of rockets on October 7, they ran into their daughters’ room, which was made of concrete reinforced to withstand rocket attacks. When they heard gunfire in the distance and then Arabic being spoken nearby, they realized Israel had been invaded. 

Amir texted his parents, who live in Tel Aviv – about 45 miles away. Noam and his wife Gali Tibon jumped into their jeep, Gali at the wheel while Noam texted seeking help, and they raced toward Nahal Oz. Along the way they rescued a young couple who had escaped the massacre at the music festival and Noam helped a group of Israeli soldiers take on and defeat Hamas fighters. 

Noam and several soldiers drove through fields and barricades after dropping Gali at a shelter before reaching Nahal Oz. They then fought their way through the kibbutz house-by-house for an hour before reaching the home of Amir and his family. 

Miri and Amir are well known to the congregants of Alexandria’s Agudas Achim synagogue, because Miri served as an Israeli emissary to the congregation for the two years that Amir was sent to work in Washington by his newspaper, Haaretz. The couple lived in Alexandria’s Parkfairfax neighborhood, according to Goldberg, not far from the synagogue. 

“We have a program that brings Israeli emissaries for a couple years to educate about Israel and build connections,” Goldberg said. “She was one that we had here. Our whole community has been watching closely how they have been doing.” 

Goldberg and her family were so fond of Miri and Amir that in the summer of 2022 they visited the Tibons at their kibbutz. 

“We went swimming there. We saw how there are bomb shelters placed around the swimming pool area,” Goldberg said. “And then we were watching the 60 Minutes program and my own children were shocked at what they saw and said, ‘Oh my God, we were there!’” 

Limmer also grew close to Miri and Amir during the couple’s time in the United States. 

“I know them personally,” Limmer said. “Their older daughter was born here. [Miri] lived here for two years and she was closely involved with all of us. … Very close relationship there.” 

Ministering while heartbroken 

Steven Rein is a rabbi at Agudas Achim Congregation. Day after day, he prays for the safety of “his Jewish brothers and sisters” and for the many people he knows who are members of the Israeli Defence Force. 

Rein describes himself as the caregiver for his Jewish community, but admits it is hard to do so when it affects him so deeply as well. 

“It’s like that saying, ‘Who is going to care for the caregiver?’” Rein said. “Sometimes when there’s a crisis, you just sort of go into overdrive. I always [have to] remember to pause for self care as well. So, I’m testing how much trauma can one hold at once.” 

Despite the heavy stress load, Rein embraces his role of comforter. 

“It is my duty, my responsibility and my honor to be able to be present with my community to help guide them during this extremely challenging time for the Jewish people,” Rein said. 

The Agudas Achim Congregation has been contributing to multiple different organizations, such as the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, that help fund the IDF and provide relief for those affected. According to Rein, the first week the organization started the international crisis relief fund, they raised $8 million, and the first $2 million has been allocated to support victims of terror. 

Rein said it’s been uplifting to see succor also offered by non-Jews. For instance, in Alexandria the City Hall building was lit up blue and white in a show of support after the Hamas attack. Additionally, Rein said churches in the area have reached out to Agudas Achim to donate and offer help.

Community and vigilance 

Goldberg said community members at Agudas Achim have helped each other get through this difficult time. 

“I think we have a very strong, vibrant community and we’re able to come together in times of crisis as well as in times of celebration,” Goldberg said. “It’s been very helpful. People know each other enough to know who has relatives and to cry together and hug and take care of each other in these kinds of times.” 

Goldberg and Limmer said most non-Jewish Americans have no real concept of what it’s like to constantly be under threat, either in Israel or in the U.S., simply for being Jewish. 

“All around [Israel], at the shopping mall, at the restaurant, wherever you go, at the park, there are shelters,” Goldberg said. “Because at any time, you could be under attack. It’s something we don’t have any understanding about [in the U.S.]” 

Limmer said the threat Jews are under extends well beyond Israel. 

“There are threats against Jews around the world,” Limmer said. “Hamas specifically called for attacks against Jews. … We never have an event at synagogue without police security. We’ve done it ever since the Pittsburgh shooting. And all the more so now.” 

Goldberg warned that Americans should not think that terrorists can’t strike again in this country. 

“We [in the U.S.] should not take for granted that we are over the ocean and separate. We also should watch out for terrorists. You know, 9/11 is more than 20 years ago – but don’t think that was it.” 

 

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