Portraits in grief, profiles in resilience

Portraits in grief, profiles in resilience

Reporter for the Times of Israel details the emotional spectrum of the hostage families

Jessica Steinberg
Jessica Steinberg

Jessica Steinberg is a seasoned journalist who has been covering arts and culture for the Times of Israel since the news website’s inception in 2012.

But “throughout the past 115 days, my focus has shifted,” Ms. Steinberg said. “I am sharing the stories of the families of those Israelis who are missing or were taken captive since the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks, and also highlighting the experiences of those sons, daughters, husbands, and wives of IDF soldiers who are on the front lines.”

Ms. Steinberg, who is from Malverne on Long Island, has lived in Jerusalem for the past 28 years; she and her husband raised their twin boys there.

“Whether it’s artists, musicians, or writers, everyone is doing what they can within their respective skill sets to present what is happening in Israel,” Ms. Steinberg said. “I have been a journalist for over 30 years, but this period is, in a sense, my mission.” When she talks to families who have lost someone or are waiting for news from or about them, she is able to glean details about the horror, fear, sadness, and loss they feel.

“We provide ongoing coverage of the war to ensure that the plight of the hostages and their personal stories are not forgotten,” she said.

In October 2023, the Press Gazette, a British trade magazine that reports on journalism and the press, reported that the Times of Israel was the world’s fastest-growing website that month, and among the world’s 50 most popular sites.

On October 8, David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, asked Ms. Steinberg to report on the devastating circumstances affecting the hostage victims and their families as they were unfolding. (This newspaper partners with the Times of Israel and shares its online platform.) “There was a lot of legwork involved,” Ms. Steinberg said. “I asked myself: Who are these people, the victims and their families, and how will we find them?

“Most people assumed their loved ones would be home in a day or two,”  she continued. “No one could have imagined the scope of the horror.” Using a volunteer-based hostages and missing families forum — stories.bringthemhomenow.net — Ms. Steinberg  learned about rallies and public events, often arranging to meet families who were willing to be interviewed. “Sometimes we speak in person, sometimes on Zoom, and other times in Hostages Square, a public plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art where families of the hostages and their supporters gather to share news or speak out against the war,” she said.

Outside of the forum, Ms. Steinberg finds family members who are willing to be interviewed through other connections. “Sometimes a family of a hostage lives in my community or someone else knows them,” she said. “It’s a small country. What’s most important is to respect the families and make sure that they are willing to speak to you — you don’t want to push them when they don’t want to be pushed.”

Each family member she speaks with has a different level of comfort with sharing his or her story. “Some are eloquent, willing to get in front of the camera or stand up at a rally to speak publicly and passionately about what they believe in,” she said. “Some have met with the Pope or with President Biden. But other family members are simply exhausted and strung out.”

Since not everyone is comfortable with the spotlight, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum can speak with the media and the press on their behalf. “Often, scheduled interviews get canceled because of time pressures, because another event takes precedence, or because the family member just doesn’t feel like it.” While she’s willing to speak with anyone about their experience, she “can’t blame them if they don’t have it in them to talk,” Ms. Steinberg said.

She is committed to following up continually with families of the hostages and their press representatives, so their detailed accounts are  current. “I want their stories on our pages,” she said.

“Daily life in Israel has changed drastically since October 7,” Ms. Steinberg continued. “There have been 200,000 people evacuated in the north of Israel due to threats from Hezbollah and in the south of Israel in the Gaza border communities,” adding that those awaiting news of their loved ones feel as if they’re living in a black hole. “There’s no sense of what ‘after the war’ will look like,” she said. “‘After the war’ will be defined differently based on each person or family’s experience. It can reflect ‘once the war is over,’ ‘once the hostages are released,’ or ‘once a family member learns if his or her loved one is dead or alive.’

“Life stopped on October 7, and it can never return until people know the fate of their missing family members.”

In her work with the Times of Israel, Ms. Steinberg continues to cover artists who are creating new works or reconfiguring existing work to help people experiencing trauma and loss. “Veteran curators and life partners Belu-Simion Fainaru and Avital Bar-Shay had already planned their Fifth Biennale art exhibition for Haifa at the Wizo Academy but went back to the drawing board after the events of October 7,” Ms. Steinberg wrote in the Times of Israel on January 25. “Fainaru’s own contribution is a simple wall clock that looks like part of the school, but this one is set to turn backward, for that wish to go back in time, to October 6.

“Reorganizing an art exhibition during a war is not easy, but it can make the messages all the more clear,” she said.

“Every morning since October 7, Israeli illustrator and comics artist Zeev Englemayer has been creating colorful images on his ‘‘daily postcards” of hostages, soldiers and mourners,” Ms. Steinberg said. “They embody the horror, fear, and sorrow of the past 115 days.

“Many artists are pulling from their existing art and finding it is relevant to what is happening now,” she said. “Famous Israeli musicians are performing for the mourners at shivas and at random for soldiers. They perform for whoever asks them — they can’t separate themselves from their brothers and sisters, everyday people who are traumatized.”

The Times of Israel  has posted detailed profiles of each of the 136 hostages who still are not back home. Ms. Steinberg explained that the Hostage Families and Friends Facebook page and the private profiles of those Israelis who were taken hostage were immediately locked by family members who feared that Hamas militants might infiltrate their social media. “Hamas was known for using individual social media profiles to show the moment of abduction or the moment of murder,” she said.

“Many families have kept frantic WhatsApp audio recordings of their family members who were taken hostage at the NOVA rave or at Kibbutz Be’eri. Like the ‘last moments’ voicemail messages left on mobile and home phones on 9/11 from terrified innocent people in the World Trade Center, from the Pentagon, and from United Flight 93, those who heard them knew that if their loved ones were being taken hostage, it wasn’t going to be good.” These messages, while horrifying to listen to, are “remnants of hope for those who wait.”

Ms. Steinberg appreciates being part of a news outlet that is committed to helping people around the world get a daily snapshot of what people in Israel are experiencing. “Every single family is going to react differently to the massacre,” she said. “There is a push-pull in Israel over how to deal with the conflict.” She believes that most Israelis agree that “while it is Day 115, it’s essentially still 10/7, because there’s been no closure.”

Ms. Steinberg now is presenting “Reporting the News Through Grief and Tragedy,” a series of speaking engagements to audiences of kids, teenagers, and adults in Philadelphia and New Jersey. She will talk about what it’s like in Israel now, and how the families of hostages are grappling with uncertainty, stress, and mourning and coping with loss. She will also talk about resilience, and about the music and art that have been created in recent weeks as Israeli society reacts to life as it is being lived right now.

Who: Jessica Steinberg of the Times of Israel

What: Will talk about the situation in Israel

When: On February 4 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Beth-El in South Orange and online

Sponsored by: Kol Rina, an independent minyan in South Orange, and Beth-El.

For more information: Go to Beth-El’s website, bethelnj.org.

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