'I don't want to have bodies sent home'

Grandmother of hostage Romi Gonen knocks on ministers’ doors during Hanukkah

Iranian-born Dvora Leshem, 87, spoke to a different politician each night of the holiday rather than lighting candles with her family

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

President Isaac Herzog and Michal Herzog light Hanukkah candles with Dvora Leshem, grandmother of hostage Romi Gonen, and other hostages' family members at Hostages Square on December 13, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
President Isaac Herzog and Michal Herzog light Hanukkah candles with Dvora Leshem, grandmother of hostage Romi Gonen, and other hostages' family members at Hostages Square on December 13, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

This Hanukkah, rather than light candles each night with her family, 87-year-old Dvora Leshem knocked on the doors of ministers, MKs and the powerful, trying to save her 23-year-old granddaughter, Romi Gonen, taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7 from the Supernova desert rave, and the other approximately 130 hostages.

Leshem went to Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana’s Tel Aviv home the first night, then to the homes of war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, then National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and war cabinet observer Aryeh Deri on the fourth and fifth nights, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sixth night, meeting with Knesset member Yuli Edelstein and President Isaac Herzog on the final two nights.

Leshem, who lives in Tel Aviv, didn’t reach every politician.

“I started the first night with Knesset speaker Amir Ohana,” said Leshem, speaking to The Times of Israel. “He wasn’t at home, but his partner was. They’re very nice people, you could see they care.”

Ohana’s family invited Leshem in, and wanted her to eat and light candles with them, she said. “But I said, ‘We’re not lighting Hanukkah candles this year.'”

The last sign of life the family had from Gonen was several weeks ago when they heard from one of the released hostages that Romi was alive, although they didn’t get much more information than that.

Meirav Leshem Gonen (third from right), mother of Hamas hostage Romi Gonen at a march on the Knesset on December 12, 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“We know she’s alive, and that gave us air to breathe,” said Leshem, whose daughter, Meirav Leshem Gonen, Romi’s mother, has been central among the families of the hostages in her speeches and statements, at the marches and protests.

Leshem’s granddaughter was last heard from at 10:58 on Saturday morning, October 7, as she and her friends tried to escape the Hamas assault on the Supernova music rave in the desert.

She had been on the phone with her mother all morning, and was in a car with friends when she told her mother that they had been shot and she was bleeding.

More than 3,000 Hamas terrorists streamed across the border on October 7, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians in their homes or at the music festival, and taking some 240 hostage.

Now, more than eight weeks later, Leshem waited 40 minutes during Hanukkah to speak with Gallant, who listened and looked her in the eyes, “but he does what a general can do, he fights,” said Leshem. “He said, ‘We’re thinking about the hostages, and we’ll save them.'”

Gallant also told Leshem that it could take another month to get all the hostages released.

“Excuse me, but how can Romi wait another month on rice and water?” said Leshem. “I told him to find others to help, that there are others in this world who can help.”

Gantz was also respectful and pleasant, said Leshem, and told her that the government would continue in their path and she and her family should continue doing what they can.

“I don’t think that’s enough,” said Leshem. “It’s been too much time. I don’t want to have bodies sent home.”

Romi Gonen, taken captive in Gaza by Hamas terrorists on October 7, as they assaulted the Supernova desert rave (Courtesy)

Leshem wasn’t planning on approaching security adviser Hanegbi, but said she was annoyed by his comments when he said that IDF efforts to rescue hostages were incredibly high risk “because their captors are waiting with their fingers on the trigger,” and that military pressure could produce another halt in the fighting and the release of further hostages.

“I wasn’t planning to go to him, I don’t like him,” said Leshem. “I told him what’s in my heart, I used harsh words.”

It is believed that some 130 hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered. The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 20 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Leshem met with most of the politicians in the yards outside their homes, and when others, like Deri or Netanyahu, were not home or unavailable, she left letters for each of them.

Leshem’s longest meeting was with Edelstein, “who spoke as a civilian and not a soldier,” she said, and spent over an hour with her.

“You feel that this matter moves them, and my intention is that when they sit in meetings, it will be in their hearts and minds and ears,” she said. “I want them to think a little differently about how to do this.”

On one of the final nights of Hanukkah, Leshem met with President Herzog who came to Hostages Square in Tel Aviv.

“He wanted me to light candles with him and to face the light, to think of that light reaching Romi,” said Leshem. “He believes that it’s not just the cabinet but a world movement, that will bring about a change, that a lot of people are thinking about how to solve this problem. But the time passing scares me.”

Leshem, born in Iran, also recorded an emotional plea in her native Persian to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, asking them “for a favor,” as fellow grandparents of a similar age, to help free her granddaughter.

“Romi has my genes, my Iranian blood,” said Leshem, who has two daughters and seven grandchildren. “They say [Khamenei] will hear it and maybe it will help.”

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