Chabad and Hillel hold event to raise awareness about hostages held in Gaza

and | Managing News Editor and Staff Writer

Chairs representing hostages displayed on Mudd Field (Bri Nitsberg | Student Life)

Washington University Chabad and Hillel held an event on Monday, Nov. 27 to raise awareness for hostages that were taken by Hamas on Oct. 7. 

The event, the first organized by a Jewish organization since a pro-Israel rally on Oct. 13, drew a group of around 40 students for the main reflection at noon. Attendees stood in front of rows of folding chairs that each had a photo of a hostage taped to them. Chairs representing hostages who were released by Hamas also had Israeli flags taped to them. 

Eden Yair, the Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow at Chabad, spoke first at the event, addressing the crowd and explaining the event’s purpose.

“52 days [have] passed [since] our sisters and brothers were kidnapped,” Yair said. “We are here today to pray and hope — and share the hope — that everyone will be released.”

She then invited those present to take chairs with Israeli flags and move them to a designated area, highlighting how many hostages have been released and how many are still in captivity. Once the chairs were in place, Rabbi Jordan Gerson, Silk Foundation Campus Rabbi and Chief Experience Officer for WashU Hillel, spoke. 

Gerson hoped the event would provide a shining light for students during what he described as a dark time.

“We are gathered here after 52 days to let the world know that we are still holding the hostages that remain in captivity in our hearts, we still pray for their release immediately, and we look to those who have been released as hope of what will be in the future for those who remain hostages in Gaza,” Gerson said.

He also asked participants to read the names on the chairs, emphasizing that not every hostage is Israeli. 

Rabbi Hershey Novack, Director of WashU Chabad, described the hostage crisis as currently being a “yes, and” situation, acknowledging that while hostages have been returned, there are many who still remain in captivity. Both Novack and Gerson concluded their remarks with prayers, one for healing recited in Hebrew and one for the state of Israel in both English and Hebrew.

Sophomore Ilan Barnea was the last speaker. He drew parallels between current events and ones his grandfather Benjamin experienced in the years before World War II and as an Israeli during the wars in 1948, 1967, and 1973.

“Eighty-nine years on the planet, and not a moment’s rest for Benjamin. Why?” Barnea said. “Because he’s Jewish, because he believes in the right to defend himself and his people and the safe return of his brothers and sisters being held hostage.”

The event concluded with participants singing Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah.”

After the event, Yair said that the return of hostages should be viewed as a human-rights issue instead of a political one. 

“[These are] my sisters and brothers,” she said. “[These are] my siblings. I don’t know them, but they are my siblings. They are our siblings. So that’s why I’m saying it’s super easy to support that it’s not political.”

Yair also said she believes people need to be wary of misinformation, especially before calling the actions of Israel genocide and using the phrase “from the river to the sea.”

“So check the facts — check what you say, check it, check it, always check,” Yair said.

Snir Dagan, the Israeli Shaliach for the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, attended the event and hopes that people will educate themselves on the issue, because what he hears from his friends in Israel is different than what is portrayed on social media. 

“When I talk with my friends and my family and understand the reality, [it] is very different than what’s portrayed in the media,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are currently in the army, a lot of friends who are currently in Israel and are volunteering and donating money, and I have friends of friends who are being held hostage by Hamas.” 

Sophomore Amalia Stulbach, who attended the event and has a connection to one of the hostages, wished more students were there but understands that students have classes and other obligations during the day.

Stulbach missed class to attend the event “to condemn the actions of Hamas and to demand the release of all the innocent hostages in Gaza.”

She found it powerful to hear from Barnea, a fellow sophomore, about his grandfather’s experience. 

Ofer Ashur, living in St. Louis as part of the ShinShinim Program, also shared this sentiment, saying events like this are heartwarming and provide him with a sense of comfort following the events of Oct. 7, which he describes as traumatic.

Like Dagan, he believes that students at the University should educate themselves about what is happening in Israel, stressing that fighting continues and that Israelis continue to be held hostage.

Even though the conflict began and the hostages were captured more than a month ago, Stulbach remains motivated to continue advocating for this issue. 

“I was raised as modern Orthodox, and every school told me that I’d have to advocate for the Jewish people, and I guess I kind of brushed it aside, because I thought I wouldn’t have to because the world accepts Jews,” Stulbach said. “And here I am, the 21st century on [a] college campus having to fight for my people.”

Additional reporting by Joel Swirnoff.

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