For those who bear witness

For those who bear witness

Four survivors bring the heroism and horror of October 7 to JCC MetroWest audiences

From left, Rabbi Moshe Rudin, Shani Teshuva, Hila Fakliro, Ofir Kisin, and Rony Kisin pray for peace at the JCC MetroWest. (Jerry Siskind)
From left, Rabbi Moshe Rudin, Shani Teshuva, Hila Fakliro, Ofir Kisin, and Rony Kisin pray for peace at the JCC MetroWest. (Jerry Siskind)

Elie Wiesel once said, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” On Tuesday, December 12, close to 600 people did just that, listening in hushed respect as four survivors of the October 7 terrorist attacks relived the horrors of that day.

The program, called “Heroes and Heroines of Light Bear Witness,” was a joint effort of the JCC Association of North America, the Israeli government’s Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism, and the World Zionist Organization.

Two seatings, the first at 1 p.m. the second at 7:30, were needed at the Maurice Levin Theater in the JCC MetroWest in West Orange to accommodate response to the program. Rabbi Moshe Rudin of Congregation Adath Shalom in Morris Plains moderated the afternoon session, and Dov Ben-Shimon, CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, undertook that task in the evening.

“When we listen to a witness, we become a witness,” Rabbi Rudin said. “We become part of the story. The survivors have been in the U.S. for only a week and have told their stories many times. They are tired, and we are so grateful to them for making their voices heard.”

Although they were introduced as heroes, the four guests said they preferred to be thought of simply as friends.

Shani Teshuva, Hila Fakliro, and Ofir and Rony Kisin took their seats on stage, each with a microphone and bottle of water, and took turns telling their incredible stories of survival on October 7. The audience was silent, the lights were dimmed, and the space was safe and supportive. Sometimes asking for help in translating a word into English, sometimes grasping each other’s hand, each of them spoke. The difficulty of the task each had undertaken was clear — but so was their resolve.

Shani Teshuvah lives in Kibbutz Zikim. “Imagine the map of Israel — you go all the way down the Mediterranean until you hit Gaza,” she said. “One pin drop above that is Kibbutz Zikim. There’s also an army base, and there’s a beautiful beach, and up until October 7 we loved living there. It’s 95 percent heaven.”

The kibbutz was so safe, she said, that on the night before the attack, her 12-year-old daughter was out with her friends skateboarding through the kibbutz until 2 a.m.

Shani woke up at 6:15 on October 7 to ride her bike to the beach, trying to get an early start before it got too hot. “I remember looking at the clock,” she said. “I stuck my head out the window and realized it’s not as hot as it was the week before. I said to myself you can give yourself an extra 10 minutes or so, but by 6:40, you’re out the door.

“Those 10 minutes saved my life, because at 6:29, the doors to Hell opened.”

Shani described the rainfall of rockets — 2,000 in one hour. Her husband jumped up from bed and they grabbed their two daughters, 14 and 12, and ran to the safe room. They all hugged the floor, waiting for a break in the rockets that never came. Quickly, they closed the iron window of their safe room — and then they heard something different.

“We started to hear gunshots, grenades, and different sounds of ammunition going off,” Shani said. “We never hear that. We didn’t know what was going on because there was also a cyber-attack at 7 a.m., so we have no phone communication, and we are under fire.”

Shani described how at a certain point the Iron Dome ran out of ammunition.

“No one ever thought about 2,000 rockets in one hour,” she said. “The team that was stationed at the Iron Dome went to get more ammunition, and they were all killed at that point.”

Rockets started falling all around, with two landing on Shani’s street, very close to the gas tanks next to barbecue grills. Neither the rockets nor the gas tanks exploded, which Shani called one of many miracles that day. Her husband left the safe room to help the other men on the Emergency Response Team with the wounded and to put out fires.

Now, Shani was alone with her daughters.

Still in disbelief, she repeated that the 10-minute delay starting her bike ride saved her life. “Everyone at the beach that morning — families, soldiers, teenagers, fisherman — ran towards the bathrooms, and the terrorists made sure no one stayed alive in there,” she said. Shani described how the observer the Navy had stationed to watch the ocean was able to give the kibbutz emergency response team an additional two minutes to prepare for the attack that was coming by sky, beach, and ground.

The team was able to kill some terrorists arriving by sea but hundreds of them still were coming toward their kibbutz. The men of the kibbutz stationed themselves around the perimeter fence to fight them off.

Phone service came back sporadically, giving the kibbutzniks a chance to send and receive messages. Shani dreaded making calls to find out who was alive and who was dead. She considers herself very lucky that her inner circle is alive. She and her daughters were evacuated at 10 that night; the police told her to drive far and fast. Her husband stayed behind with the emergency response team. Police sped Shani and her daughters to her mother’s kibbutz in under 45 minutes through heavy rocket fire. The trip normally takes 1 hour 20 minutes.

Husband and wife Ofir and Rony Kisin live in Kerem Shalom, on the triangular border of Gaza, Egypt, and Israel. “Let me take you in a time machine back to October 6,” Rony said. For the first time in five years, all four of her children and their two grandchildren were together for Simchat Torah. “What a party it was,” she said. “I can see the synagogue from my kitchen window, and we all just had a wonderful time. Singing, dancing, laughing.”

The Kisins’ adult children wanted to go see their friends, whom they hadn’t seen in a long time, and they asked their father for alcohol. “Ofir never gave them alcohol,” Rony said. “Never ever. But this time, he gave them two half bottles of a very old Arak that my mother had left when she died 18 years ago. They took the bottles; they got very drunk, and they never went to the Nova party as they had planned. Lucky us.”

Like an ordinary longtime-married couple, Ofir and Rony took turns telling their far-from-ordinary story. The pain on their faces and in their voices was palpable. They described how the gates of hell opened at 6:30 a.m. with rocket fire and the realization that terrorists were inside the kibbutz. The emergency responders fought the terrorists in rapid waves of combat.

Ofir is a former head of security, and he and Rony are both medics. They were called to treat the wounded, coming face to face with a terrorist. Rony’s arm was grazed with a bullet as they ran from house to house to help victims. “Nothing could prepare me for the sights I saw,” Rony said.

She described helping a father who was badly wounded and coming upon his wife and six children all in the safe room. “They were silent,” she said. “So silent. There was war all around us, but inside the safe room they were silent.”

There are large solar panels on the borders of the kibbutz. Ofir, his voice still shaking in disbelief, said that 50 terrorists rose up from under the panels.

The Kisins, talking quickly and steadily, described nearly indescribable atrocities. A neighbor’s house exploded from the inside and is reduced to rubble. Rony has to tell a family of five children that their father has been killed.

“Then we have to say to the families the worst announcement ever. I went to the house of one of the two men that were killed, and we say what we had to say. Then the child in the fourth grade started to cry and said ‘I need my daddy! What will I do without my daddy?’ and my heart tore apart.”

As part of the emergency response medical team, Ofir and Rony saved many lives on October 7. The two fallen heroes of that day, Amichai Israel Witzen and Yedidia Raziel Rosenberg, are credited with defending the kibbutz and keeping the terrorists from entering more homes.

Hila Fakliro is a 26-year-old woman studying digital marketing in Tel Aviv; she had been working as a bartender at the Nova Festival. Her shift began at 11:30 p.m. on October 6 and was supposed to end at 8 the next morning. But at 6:30 the rockets began; her first thought was that they were fireworks. But as her cell phone lit up with red warnings, she realized that she had been mistaken. The staff took shelter under the bar until her manager said they should just run.

Hila and her coworkers sprinted into an open field, and decide to run to their cars and drive to shelter. Hila and another bartender, Leon, start running toward Hila’s car. But something happened; it’s her first miracle that day. “Something in my inner gut says to sit down,” she said. “I can’t explain, but I knew I must sit down. So I tell Leon we must sit. We sit for 45 minutes, and that saved our lives because the first people out of the party were murdered in an ambush by terrorists.”

At Leon’s urging, Hila ignored her manager’s text to come back to the party to clean up. Still not understanding the magnitude of the attack, she got to her car and drove until she was caught in a massive traffic jam. She described seeing a police officer with bullet holes in his stomach and bleeding from his mouth. She got in and out of her car as she tried to figure out what to do. People were running and yelling that terrorists were everywhere.

The police told everyone to get their cars to the side of the road so the military could come through — but this also allowed terrorists to drive through to the main party area. At one point, Hila blacked out. She doesn’t recall what she saw but “I remember hearing people crying and screaming,” she said. “I hear the Allahu Akbar calls and laughing. Lots of laughing, full of joy and evil.”

Still dressed for the music festival, Hila ran for five hours, covering 13 miles. She knew that if the terrorists caught her, they would rape her, so she ran for her life.

“My story is good and nice,” she said. “I’m safe. I’m here. I didn’t get injured, but it’s not the same story for all of my friends. I have three friends still in Gaza. One of them…” Hila paused. “She is my age, and we all know what’s happening to women my age. Two of them are males aged 30, and we already have evidence that they’re raping males, too. Six of my friends were murdered, and many were physically injured. And all of us are mentally injured.

“I’m just glad I’m able to be here and share my story.”

The survivors ended their individual testimonies with the words “Thank you for listening.” That is the first thing we have to do. To listen. To bear witness. The survivors all urged us to tell their stories. “Do not stay silent,” Hila urged, stressing that Hamas excels in using social media and video as a weapon. “We must do the same to defend the truth,” she said.

Just before leaving Israel for this speaking tour a week ago, Shani, her husband, and their children were living in a small hotel room, but the family had just rented an apartment and got her children registered for school. She said she’s heard different estimates of when they can go home again — but nobody really knows.

Shani compared the aftermath of October 7 to a shiva. Everyone is there to support the mourners in the first days, weeks, and months. “But what about a year from now?” she asked. “Will the students who were at the Nova festival have the scholarships and mental help they will need? We have everything we need now. But please, in a year, ask us how we are. Help us then.”

“Since we have been here, we have felt the hug of the communities,” Rony said. “It’s very, very important to us to know that we are not alone. It’s really important to us, so please stand for Israel.”

“Something very important to remind all of us — Am Yisroel chai,” Ofir said. “We will keep on living for many, many thousands of years. We’ll keep on doing whatever we are doing because we have no other place to go.” The audience applauded his words.

According to Dov Ben-Shimon, the Jewish Federations of North American have raised $710 million in the last two months to help the people of Israel. That money goes to trauma relief, rebuilding bomb shelters, and respite care for all the victims of terror.

Mr. Ben-Shimon urged the whole Jewish community to continue to show up. “The people who hate us want us to stay home and be afraid,” he said. “We stand together as a family in solidarity and love.”

Video of the evening program of the survivor testimony is on YouTube on the JCC MetroWest channel; it’s called “Heroes and Heroines of Light at JCC MetroWest.”

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