ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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Rachel Goldberg talks about her son, Hersh, and the turning points of the last 13 days

Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, taken captive on October 7, speaks to ToI about what motivated their media blitz, organized by a situation room of friends and 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

Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg, parents of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a Hamas hostage since October 7, speaking to Chris Cuomo in their Jerusalem home (Courtesy YouTube screen shot)
Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg, parents of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a Hamas hostage since October 7, speaking to Chris Cuomo in their Jerusalem home (Courtesy YouTube screen shot)

There is a sense of calm purpose upon entering the Goldberg-Polin front door.

It’s here, at the dining room table, around the L-shaped living room couch and in the bright, tidy kitchen, that the “hamal,” the Hebrew term for situation room, has gathered every day, all day, since 23-year-old Hersh, the eldest of the family’s three children, has been missing.

“This isn’t a shiva,” said Rachel Goldberg, Hersh’s mom and one of the now-familiar voices of the fight to bring home Hersh and the other some 200 missing Israelis, all presumed captive by terrorists in Gaza.

It isn’t a house of mourning. There are drinks, a carefully arranged platter of fruit on the kitchen island, but no one here is weeping or huddled in a corner, staring mutely into space.

Instead, each team, including a group of Hersh’s friends in the kitchen, another in the living room where dad Jon is seated on the living room floor with his laptop, and a third at the dining room table, are calmly, quietly plotting the next steps for possibly, hopefully, getting medical care for Hersh and the other hostages, and finding the best paths toward publicity and negotiation.

“We had this amazing group of people who came over, and they weren’t coming over to hug us, they were coming over to work,” said Rachel. “They were able to keep their heads when we were in a complete daze,” including two who drove down to the southern hospitals on that Saturday night to see if Hersh was among the unidentified bodies.

There wasn’t any kind of plan when Jon and Rachel, Hersh’s parents, first began understanding the scope of what had happened to Hersh on October 7, in a field shelter near Kibbutz Re’im.

The first inkling that something was wrong was when Rachel received a message from Hersh early Saturday morning to the “Hersh Go-Po” WhatsApp group he shared with his parents, telling them he loved them, and that he was sorry.

Over the course of that chilling Saturday, the world and the family began to grasp the scope of the Hamas attack, with 2,500 terrorists entering Israel’s Gaza border communities, killing and committing atrocities in kibbutzim and towns.

They had quickly figured out that Hersh was at the Supernova music rave with his best friend, Aner Shapira and others, with sleuthing carried out by his sister, Libbi, and another friend, Omer. “He’s a real connector,” said Rachel.

It was a photo found on Saturday night, showing Hersh, Aner and others standing in an outdoor field shelter, that allowed them to start unraveling his story.

Around 48 hours later, when Jon and Rachel found out that Hersh’s arm had been blown off by a grenade, from somewhere around the elbow, they realized they had to do whatever they could, including speaking to the media, to try and get medical care for Hersh and all the others.

A screenshot of Hersh Goldberg-Polin (left) and his friend, Aner Shapira, in a field shelter early Saturday morning, October 7, 2023. Goldberg-Polin is missing, Shapira was later declared dead (Courtesy)

“It’s the left hand and I’m left-handed and Hersh is left-handed and there was something about it that was so re-sickening,” said Rachel.

That was the turning point.

“Then we decided, that’s it, we’re going to every media outlet we can because time is of the essence and we want to save his life,” she said.

Since then, it has been an unrelenting media blitz, as Jon and Rachel have spoken to every major media outlet in Israel, and, perhaps more significantly, to many of the major news channels and newspapers in the US, telling Hersh’s story.

“For whatever reason, it speaks to people. I think it’s because he’s everybody’s kid,” said Rachel. “He’s this regular guy.”

The two have been featured on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, in a New York Times op-ed, in People Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and many others.

It’s not a task that either one particularly wants, said Rachel, even though they’re good at it. Rachel has a natural eloquence, along with the ability to say exactly what she means, getting to the heart of the matter.

She also has a tragicomic sense of humor that she puts to good use during these long days.

When she speaks about the possibility of Hersh’s death, tears come into her eyes, but she doesn’t cry. She jokes about the deep, dark circles under her eyes, from the long nights in which she and Jon grab about three hours of sleep, before their sleeping pills wear off and the nightmarish reality of their situation returns.

Jon and Rachel know that these first days, now nearly two weeks since the horrifying events of October 7 first unfolded, are crucial.

The ad-hoc team began moving immediately on trying to get medical care to the hostages, making contact with the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and any organization that could possibly help them figure out the medical situation among the captives.

“Jon speaks to them every day, in London, in Geneva, to the Red Cross, to Doctors Without Borders, they can’t get in,” she said.

“There’s a chance that he died ten days ago,” added Rachel. “We just don’t know. That’s why we’re in the twilight zone.”

After that sentence, Rachel swallows hard and continues speaking.

“We’re not naive,” she said. “We know that the way news cycles work is that, you know, this will pass.”

There is another part of the team, run by friends who have worked and still do in the Israeli and US governments, with strong ties to those in the Biden administration, who are advising them, making connections.

By Thursday, October 12, all those with missing family members with dual US-Israel citizenship, met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he came to the region. The next day, all 12 representatives met on Zoom with US President Joe Biden.

US President Joe Biden meets with victims’ relatives and first responders who were directly affected by the Hamas attacks, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP/Evan Vucci)

The call was supposed to last about 20 minutes, and when members of the president’s staff told him it was time to get off the phone, Biden held them off, ending up spending an hour and a half on the phone.

It was during that phone call, that Rachel and Jon experienced the depths of Biden’s compassion, she said. During the call, one of the family members, already sitting shiva for one daughter, received the news that her other missing daughter, was also declared dead.

“He put his head in his hands and started sobbing and it was so powerful because we were so with her,” said Rachel.

Biden then wiped his eyes, she added and said, “‘I’m telling you right now, I’ve lost two children and I know right now you’re in unimaginable agony but one day you will need to be strong for the rest of your family so scream, and you can scream to me as much as you want and if you want you can call me tomorrow and keep screaming.'”

It was a real, human moment, said Rachel.

“I know it’s very western and American and touchy-feely, but we’ve been in hell for 12 days now and it was a moment, it was a whisper of someone getting the pain.”

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