In limbo, togetherA teenage basketball player, his girlfriend's father, uncle

‘Life has stopped in the middle’ for families of 3 hostages, connected by teens’ love

Ofir Engel, Yossi and Eli Sharabi were all abducted from Kibbutz Be’eri by Hamas terrorists on October 7; their families, working tirelessly to get them back, finally meet at Dead Sea

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

Yoav Engel (left), Nira Sharabi and Sharon Engel at the David Spa hotel at the Dead Sea on November 15, 2023, after Sharabi's husband, Yossi Sharabi and the Engel's son, Ofir, were taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Yoav Engel (left), Nira Sharabi and Sharon Engel at the David Spa hotel at the Dead Sea on November 15, 2023, after Sharabi's husband, Yossi Sharabi and the Engel's son, Ofir, were taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Throughout the months of Ofir Engel and Yuval Sharabi’s long-distance teenage romance, their parents, Nira and Yossi Sharabi and Yoav and Sharon Engel, kept meaning to meet for coffee.

The distance made it harder: The Sharabis live in Kibbutz Be’eri in Israel’s south and the Engels live in Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, just outside Jerusalem — a two-hour drive.

They planned to finally meet on October 7. The Engels were coming to Be’eri to pick up Ofir, who had just spent several days with his girlfriend, Yuval.

Instead, on that Black Shabbat, Yossi Sharabi and Ofir Engel were taken hostage to Gaza by Hamas terrorists, shoved into a small black car as Nira Sharabi and her three daughters watched, stunned.

Forty days later, Nira was sitting with Yoav and Sharon in the lobby of the David Spa Hotel in the Dead Sea, where many of the Kibbutz Be’eri survivors have been living since the attack. They’ve finally met — but without Yossi and Ofir.

“Life has just stopped in the middle,” said Nira Sharabi. “I don’t know when they’ll be back, I just hope they will.”

Nira Sharabi, whose husband, Yossi Sharabi, was abducted by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023, from Kibbutz Be’eri, sits in the lobby of a Dead Sea hotel, November 15, 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The three adults sat on the hotel couches and chairs, chatting easily, but there was no missing the deep circles under their eyes, or the expressions of grief and worry etched on their faces.

Nira Sharabi wore a T-shirt printed with the faces of her husband, Yossi, and her brother-in-law, Eli Sharabi, also taken captive from Be’eri.

Eli Sharabi’s wife, Lianne and their two daughters, Noiya and Yahel, were killed on October 7. Nira still has no idea how their story unfolded that day.

“I don’t have any time to myself. I don’t have a corner of the house where I can cry to myself,” she said, her voice choking with tears. “You don’t cry because there’s no place to do it.”

Eli Sharabi was taken captive on October 7, 2023, by Hamas terrorists while his wife Lianne and their two daughters, Noiya and Yahel, were killed (Courtesy)

Nira’s family was awoken at 6:30 a.m. by sirens, and hurried into their safe room with a bottle of water as the house filled with the scent of baking jachnun, the savory Yemenite pastry often left baking overnight to be eaten on Shabbat.

The sirens didn’t stop, said Nira, and they heard shots being fired outside as well as yelling in Arabic. Yossi Sharabi kept peering out the windows of their home to see what was happening, and holding the safe room door closed when they were all inside.

At some point, Nira got a call from a nephew who was at the Supernova desert rave taking place nearby. He was trying to escape and wanted their address at Be’eri.

“I told him, no, don’t come here, look for a field shelter,” said Nira. She found out later that he was killed alongside others in a field shelter.

Sharabi family: Yossi (left), Nira (far right), Yuval (second from right) and two younger daughters, during happier times for the Kibbutz Be’eri family (Courtesy)

In Be’eri, the Hamas terrorists arrived at Nira’s home at 12:30 p.m., entered their safe room and immediately shot and killed the family dog.

The terrorists then walked the family outside, Nira and her daughters still in pajamas, and seated everyone on a kibbutz lawn, along with an elderly couple and another family.

They kept shuffling the family from place to place in the kibbutz, walking them in complete silence, until they were brought to a street where a black car was waiting. Ofir and Yuval were holding hands, and the terrorists told them to break their hold, then motioned to Yossi and Ofir to get into the car, along with a neighbor’s 16-year-old son. That was the last time they saw Yossi and Ofir.

The kibbutz was filled with the sound of gunfire and the air filled with smoke from houses being set aflame, said Nira. At the time, she didn’t know what had happened to their house but she knew they needed to hide.

“It’s not clear to me why they didn’t kill us,” she said.

An alternate reality

Nira and her daughters, Yuval, 17, Ofir, 14, and Oren, 13, made their way to another house, breaking in through a window and hiding there until 9 p.m. when the IDF forces cleared the kibbutz of all terrorists.

They were evacuated to Netivot, and then to the hotel in the Dead Sea, where Nira and her daughters are currently living in two adjoining rooms.

There was a sense of an alternate reality in the hotel when The Times of Israel visited on November 15. It was quiet, well-kept and full of the kibbutz evacuees, some of them walking around in their usual bare feet, with their dogs on leashes. A stack of board games sat on a coffee table, and two young women kept a gaggle of toddlers occupied outside.

As Nira spoke, another young woman pushed two babies in a playpen on wheels down a ramp, waving at Nira as she blew a kiss back.

“This is our strength as a kibbutz, we’re a strong community, it’s just like at the kibbutz,” said Nira. “You see each other at the front desk, at the dining room for meals.”

A sale of Teva Naot and Shoresh sandals at cost for Kibbutz Be’eri evacuees at a hotel in the Dead Sea, November 15, 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

At the same time, she doesn’t allow herself to think about how her husband Yossi, her daughter’s boyfriend Ofir or the other hostages are surviving, because if she does, “it will just break me,” said Nira.

“I just think of this time as an alternate reality alongside the other reality, their reality,” she said.

She doesn’t think about going back to her home in Be’eri, either.

“There’s no house any longer, it was burned down,” said Sharabi, who had that confirmed by a next-door neighbor who was hugely relieved to find Nira alive. “I don’t think about going back. I say to myself that today Yossi will be back, or tomorrow, or the next day.”

“We thought we were safe there, protected. All we wanted is to have a regular family life,” she said. “That trust is broken.”

‘A big, big love’

Nira and Yossi were Be’eri transplants, having met in their twenties as Yossi went to work at the kibbutz, alongside his brother, Eli. Both couples raised their families in the kibbutz over the last 18 years.

Nira, a nurse by training, ran the Be’eri clinic for years, and recently went to work in another community clinic, needing a break from the 24/7 nature of her work.

Their eldest daughter, Yuval, met Ofir at a conference for kibbutz teenagers from all over the country around eight months ago.

“There’s a big, big love between them,” said Yael Engel Lichi, Ofir’s aunt.

Young love, Ofir Engel and Yuval Sharabi, before Hamas terrorists abducted Ofir and Yuval’s father, Yossi, on October 7, 2023 from Kibbutz Be’eri (Courtesy)

The two teenagers began spending all their time together. Ofir Engel, a basketball player on the Jerusalem Hapoel teen team, switched to the Eshkol regional team in the south in order to spend more time with his girlfriend.

Both teens are from kibbutz families. Ofir Engel’s great-grandparents came to Israel in 1938 from Poland and went straight to Ramat Rachel, which had been established 12 years earlier.

His paternal grandmother was born on the kibbutz, his father and his siblings were born and raised there, and now his grandparents, his family and his father’s three siblings and their families all still live at the Jerusalem-area kibbutz.

Yael Engel Lichi (center) and her two daughters at her brother’s home in Kibbutz Ramat Rachel on November 14,2023, as the family wages a battle to save the 240 Hamas hostages taken captive on October 7, 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Ofir’s aunt, Yael Engel Lichi, has become the unofficial spokesperson for the Engels during this family trauma.

Engel Lichi is a powerhouse, handling all the foreign and local media coverage while also putting together a project for the Be’eri survivors, working with the Shoresh and Teva Naot sandal companies to supply sandals and slides to the kibbutz evacuees at cost.

She was at the Dead Sea hotel on Wednesday with her daughters, setting up a table to sell the discounted sandals to the evacuees.

“You see broken families,” she said. “One boy now has one leg and he says, jokingly, ‘Can I buy just half a pair of sandals?’ Then he walked around the lobby seeing if anyone wanted the other sandal.”

Engel Lichi shook her head.

She’s been in touch with the Red Cross, along with the Dutch government — the family has Dutch citizenship — and plans on meeting with UNICEF to speak about the 30 Israeli children held captive.

Her brother and father met with the Dutch prime minister and with the Qatari ambassador to Holland. She met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and with various Knesset members as well. But Engel Lichi doesn’t feel the Israeli government is fully invested in the hostage situation.

“I want people to get up in the morning and go to bed and think about the fact that there are 240 people who aren’t home yet,” said Engel Lichi on Tuesday, as she and the extended family, including Ofir’s parents and siblings, gathered in the backyard of Ofir’s family home, the headquarters for the family since October 7.

Ofir Engel (left) and his family before Hamas terrorists abducted him on October 7, 2023 from Kibbutz Be’eri (Courtesy)

The Engels were at the Knesset the previous day, and they sensed that “the government is just detached from this situation,” said Engel Lichi. “There’s not one banner or photo of the hostages up on any wall. This happened on their watch. Where are they?”

Nira Sharabi echoed those thoughts but at more of a remove. She said she can’t think about or criticize the government’s role in the massacres of October 7, only that “it was a Holocaust that happened and the writing was on the wall.”

For now, it’s only Yossi, Ofir, Eli and the other captives who are at the forefront of her thoughts.

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