There were few dry eyes, if any, inside the Chaiken Auditorium at the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia by the time four speakers finished sharing their harrowing stories of survival during the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks.
The afternoon session of the two-part event on Dec. 13 featured four Israeli survivors participating in an emotional panel discussion led by the Pozez JCC’s senior community shaliach, Dean Bagdadi, where they spoke to an audience comprised of community members.
Sharon Ana Yakobi, one of the survivors and a teacher from Sderot, expressed hope that people with varying degrees of influence would hear their stories and ensure that their harrowing tales of survival are told over and over so people understand exactly what happened on Oct. 7.
True to their wishes, the stories were heard by a considerable amount of people, with a total combined registration for both sessions of approximately 340, despite the event being organized and advertised in a single week through the combined efforts of the Pozez JCC, JCC Association of North America, Israel’s Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and World Zionist Organization.
“We are very happy with the result. There’s a lot of people [here] today. We were expecting to see superintendents, local legislators and people influential in the community to make sure that the impact lasts and trickles all the way up. Because it is also as important not just to do this for the Jewish community, but for the [whole Northern Virginia] community,” Bagdadi said.
The impact of the stories was evident early on during the discussion, with audience members making audible reactions as the survivors shared how their lives were changed from the normal reality of everyday Israeli life to having their worldviews shattered and any innocence they had ripped away.
For Yael Simon, an attendee at the Nova music festival, Oct. 7 was a day where they saw the worst of humanity. Simon described hearing gunshots as the terrorists entered the festival grounds and saw cars on fire and people falling to the ground while trying to run away as they were struck with gunshots.
“Everything was so pure and happy and suddenly everything brutally stopped with pure evil. We started to hear the rockets above us, and the sky was filled with a lot of rockets and at first, we didn’t feel in danger because in our lives in Israel it’s an ordinary thing,” Simon said. “I think we understood there is a danger when we started to hear the gunshots and we understood there is a terrorist.”
Daniel Weiss and Orin Bokobza, a couple who were in Kibbutz Be’eri before the attacks were stuck in their safe room for 11 hours as gunshots and explosions rocked the kibbutz, and their neighbors became victims and hostages.
Weiss found out after the attacks that his father had been killed and his mother taken hostage in Gaza. She was eventually found dead outside a Gaza hospital in November.
Yakobi had a similar experience, as she was stuck inside her safe room for 27 hours as the terrorists rampaged outside, and she received texts that her neighbors had terrorists shooting at their doors and trying to break inside.
Yakobi was wearing a shirt in honor of a family she is neighbors and friends with who had their father kidnapped and their daughter murdered during the attack. She fought back tears as she described what happened to them that day.
“She was an ex-pupil of mine – and also she was my friend,” Yakobi said. She added that there were two families in that house and three of the members were taken hostage and some have yet to be released.
“I think how much Israelis were impacted by Oct. 7 is not to be comprehended. Thank you for sharing,” Bagdadi said to the survivors.
Bagdadi’s point about the significant impact of the attacks was proven in full several minutes later when a firetruck drove past the building, leaving the Israeli survivors in a visible state of worry before they discussed the differences between Israeli rocket sirens and U.S. emergency services sirens.
The trauma of the events of Oct. 7 has been hard to shake, and the pain was apparent as they delivered their stories on the stage in front of the crowd.
“For me, most of the time that I’m telling my story, I have some distance between the words and the feelings. And now, when I talked on the stage, I saw the picture and all the memories that I have from the day and I felt a bit blocked, like a curtain fell,” Simon said.
Yakobi added that she was feeling pain remembering what had happened to her and the people that she cared about.
“It was pain, remembering people that I have been fighting for the last two months to forget. Not forget them, forget the fact that she [one of my friends] was burned [alive] the other was murdered,” Yakobi said.
But despite the pain the group is fighting on and continuing to tell their story, with more trips planned for the delegation to travel around the Mid-Atlantic region over the next several days and weeks.
And there’s healing in sharing their stories and reflecting on their future after the suffering they endured during and after the attacks. Weiss, a singer, wrote a beautiful song in honor of his parents that he played at the end of the event.
Bokobza said that she initially wasn’t sure what she would do as a part of the delegation and wondered if she should even come but she acknowledged that she has found a connection with the community here and it’s been a rewarding experience.
After the event, many attendees were so moved that they spent a while lingering and speaking with the survivors. They exchanged words, hugs and emotional thoughts with complete strangers. It was something that affirmed the value of the delegation’s mission.
“I think it’s really important for me to tell my story and to tell my country’s story as much as I can all over the world and meet our people, the Jewish people, and to connect together. I think it’s really important for us,” Simon said.