The Israel-Hamas War first-hand: personal accounts, part I

By Bill Simons 

Life and death are more than an aggregation of statistics, particularly so in wartime. On both sides of the Israel-Hamas War, individual stories demand remembrance. No book, let alone a newspaper column, can capture the full canvas of lives impacted by war. With no claim to comprehensiveness or typicality, this entry attempts to do justice to Jewish lives impacted by the Israel-Hamas War. 

From its inception on October 7, the war transformed the life of 48-year-old Chen Goldstein-Almog, a former social worker. In the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Kfar Aza, terrorists took Chen and her daughter Agam, 17, and sons Gal, 11, and Tal, 9, hostage. Initially unaccounted for, the dead bodies of Chen’s husband, Nadav, 48, a business executive and injured triathlon athlete, and eldest child, daughter Yam, 20, an off-duty Israel Defense Force sergeant, were subsequently found, pierced by bullets. 

In the November 26 hostage exchange, Chen and her three surviving children were released. Hamas took more than 240 captives, and each hostage experience was different. Despite the brutality of the circumstances, Chen observed elements of humanity during her seven-week captivity. One captor expressed regret at the killings of her husband and daughter. At times, Chen and her children were allowed to participate in meal preparation. On occasion, guards engaged Chen in substantive conversations. When a guard warned her not to return to southern Israel because Hamas would return, according to The New York Times, Chen retorted, “Next time you come, don’t throw a grenade. Just knock on the door.” In a post-captivity photo, Chen appears numbed, pained and somewhere else in mind. 

For Gal Abdush, 34, there was no returning to her home in Kiryat Ekron, a small town in Central Israel. Before heading to the Supernova Sukkot Gathering (Nova), a music festival on the outskirts of Kibbutz Reim, with her husband Nagi, an ebullient Abdush swigged vodka cut with an energy drink. The couple entrusted their two young children to the care of Gal’s parents. Along with kibbutzim, towns and military outposts, the Nova rave was one of the targets of Hamas terrorists on October 7. More than 360 Israelis were slaughtered at Nova, and over 40 were taken hostage. Gal and Nagi numbered among the dead. Repeatedly raped and tortured before her murder, Gal’s body was desecrated in death: her face nearly incinerated, her legs splayed and her genitalia exposed. 

Amichai Yisrael Yehoshua Oster, 24, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel, died a hero. Attired in his IDF uniform for a family photo, a handsome, black-haired, confident Amichai, his beard closely cropped, smiles at us. Born in the U.S., his parents, Howard, a physician, and Marcy, a journalist, moved the family from Cleveland to Israel when Amichai was a year old. Howard and Marcy believed aliyah would place their children in the main currents of Jewish life. The family settled in Karnei Shomron, a West Bank community. Coming of age, Amichai volunteered to work with the disabled. After finishing his mandatory IDF stint, Amichai decided upon another type of adventure, traveling throughout Asia and the U.S. Attending Sabbath services at Chabad in Salt Lake City on October 7, Amichai learned of Hamas’ terrorist attack. A reservist, his draft notice quickly followed. Amichai returned to the IDF, serving in the Fifth Brigade’s 7020th Battalion. In Northern Gaza on New Year’s Day 2024, he was killed in battle by an explosive device. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports an exchange between Amichai and his mother near the end of his life. Marcy, a former JTA editor and reporter, offered him the following apologia: “I told... (Amichai) that I felt responsible for the fact that he was fighting in a war, and he didn’t make the decision to come on aliyah – that we (his parents) made it for him.” Amichai responded, “[W]hat makes you think that if you never made aliyah that I would not have come here to fight for our country?”

David Leichman left the U.S. to make aliyah. In Kibbutz Gezer, he built housing and other infrastructure, grew crops, served in the IDF, raised three children with his wife Rabbi Miri Gold, promoted baseball, imparted pluralistic Jewish education as Pinat Shorashim’s executive director and established a budding ice cream empire. Carrying press credentials, I covered the Israel Baseball League in 2007, and David proved a generous and knowledge resource, introducing me to his then 17-year-old son Alon, the youngest player in the Israel Baseball League, and hosted an overnight visit to Gezer. Upon request, David provided the following account of Leichman family life since October 7: “[W]e were at a family wedding in the U.S. with our three adult children when we first learned the news. We returned home as soon as we could get flights and our older son joined his unit. He has been in the reserves ever since with a few brief visits home. Fortunately, Alon is off-season from his job as assistant pitching coach for the Cincinnati Reds, and he came home as soon as he could get a flight. He has been helping in different ways, including initiatives from the Israel Olympic Committee (he was on the Team Israel baseball team in the Tokyo Olympics).

“Our daughter-in-law went to the U.S. with her two small children to be with her parents while our older son is in the army, because it is very difficult for spouses of reserve soldiers to manage alone. She came back this past week and we were thrilled.

“Everyone has experienced trauma and loss. Our very close friend Vivian Silver was considered missing and declared a hostage, until the devastating news came that she was confirmed murdered October 7 in her home at Kibbutz Beeri.

“We all agonize daily over the hostages still in captivity and the growing number of soldiers killed. We don’t sleep soundly, always worrying. The rockets, fired as 2024 was ushered in, sent us to our safe room.

“Our grandchildren of different ages worry about bomb attacks and always want to know where the nearest shelter is located.

“We personally want to see peace with our Arab neighbors, and yet are dismayed both by loss of life in Gaza as well as in Israel. We are pained by the hatred aimed at Israelis and Jews, and are troubled that the International Red Cross does not shout out to the world that they are not allowed to visit the hostages nor get vital medicines to some of them.

“We pray for better times and do whatever we can to help out (like packaging produce in a nearby warehouse because most of the foreign workers have left the country).”
More stories of Jewish lives interrupted by October 7 need telling.