How the Hostage Crisis Brought our Campus Together
After a few semesters on the Beren Campus, I struggled to find a cause or common thread that unified us all. While the campus is composed of young Jewish women, I lamented the fact that oftentimes, the sense of community was missing. I felt that while Beren is nominally one campus, it was hard to find real factors that made us one unified entity. Some connect to their Stern experience through their sports teams. Others through specific clubs or societies. Others see Stern as a place of academic accomplishment, where their dream career begins to actualize. Many see Stern as a place of Talmud Torah and religious connection. However, I wondered if there would be one thing that would bring us all together … until two weeks ago.
On Thursday, November 14th, we discovered that love for the Jewish people and its land — what Rav Soloveithcik refers to as the inescapable shared fate of the Jews — is essentially what unites all of us. On a Thursday afternoon, many students decided to stay in school and attend an event to show solidarity and support for the family of one of Hamas’ hostages. Instead of there being just a small crowd, the beit midrash was filled beyond its full capacity, with students representing the diverse demographics of the Beren campus. We all gathered to welcome Rinat Har-Sheleg and Natalie Har, two sisters whose father, Luis Norberto Har, was taken hostage along with four other family members during the devastating attacks of October 7. The assembly was arranged by Rabbi Shay Schachter and was hosted by Rabbi Azi Fine and Dean Shoshana Schechter.
Setting the appropriate tone, Rabbi Fine opened the event by introducing the Har sisters, explaining why they are here as well as expressing how important this event is — especially our coming together as a community to listen and ultimately to comfort the Har sisters. Rabbi Fine proceeded to lead everyone in tefillah, reciting several chapters of Tehillim and the Mi Sheberach for the captives. Dean Shoshana Schechter then addressed the audience and the Har sisters, sharing that she had just returned from Israel and that she had never felt so connected to the Jewish people as in these days. Along these lines, she said on behalf of all those present, “Imachem anachnu betzarah,” showing our empathy by borrowing the words of David Hamelech. After Dean Schechter, Rabbi Shay Schachter spoke about the urgency of our times and how our response should be a simple and desperate screaming out, leaving all rational considerations and calculations aside. Finally, Rinat and Natalie stood up to share their story, expressing how they lived normal lives up until this tragedy and how they are forever changed since that painful day. They spoke in English and Hebrew, assisted by Mrs. Yael Lewitinn, a woman who has been a major source of emotional and practical support for them during this dreadful experience.
Rinat and Natalie flew overseas, leaving their young children at home, to appeal for this urgent need. While they officially came to speak at a press conference for the Hostages Families Forum, they came to Stern College to tell their story, to publicly lament the loss they have gone through and to show the delusional segments of the American population that the over 200 individuals being held hostages in Gaza are real human beings with real family members. Natalie noted that what she lost in this attack was irreversible. She described her personal trauma, how she will never be the person she once was. She presented her family loss, how her children will have to pay the price of their single mom being psychologically injured forever. She expressed the communal loss, how the kibbutz where she lived for so many years, and her extended family had been dismantled forever. Rinat shared how speechless and beyond shocked she had been when she heard the news of the capture of her father and relatives, how devastating these past weeks have been and how connected she felt to those present along with the entire Jewish world, sharing in her pain. She emphasized several times that the Jewish people are one and that we are all in this together.
After their remarks, those of us present started a kumzits, singing together songs of pain and mourning but also faith and hope. The event officially ended with the recitation of Hatikvah, as requested by the Har sisters. After the event ended, many students went to personally acknowledge and embrace Rinat and Natalie, expressing how pained they felt from their horrible struggle, and how grateful they felt coming to us despite their mental and physical exhaustion to share their message and their resilience. Others just approached them speechless, without anything to say after being exposed to such a dystopian reality.
In any case, the essence of that afternoon cannot be expressed verbally. What was powerful about it was the sensory experience. It was seeing these women and their pain in their facial expressions. It was listening to the brokenness in their voices. It was hugging real people, real human beings, who were going through hell right in front of us. The visceral burden over our shoulders, as we went through the bittersweet feeling of a shared fate, which is sometimes indescribably painful.
Photo Caption: Stern students listen to the Har sisters tell their story
Photo Credit: Rabbi Azi Fine