ToI podcast'We're in the twilight zone'

What Matters Now to Rachel Goldberg: Her son Hersh, held hostage by Hamas

Hersh Goldberg-Polin was captured by terrorists on Oct. 7 at the Supernova rave. In a raw interview, his mother describes him, the media campaign and an ongoing unbearable nightmare

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

Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

It is nearly two weeks since parents Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg have heard from their son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, missing since October 7, when Hamas terrorists descended upon the Supernova desert rave and proceeded to massacre at least 260 people, taking others captive.

Goldberg-Polin was last seen in a field shelter where he and other partygoers had fled, trying to escape the falling rockets and Hamas gunmen.

For the last 13 days, Hersh’s parents have veered from horror and fear to a calm determination as they, assisted and supported by a cadre of family and friends, launched an international media campaign to find out every detail available about Hersh, and hopefully save him, and the other nearly 200 Hamas hostages.

Times of Israel culture editor Jessica Steinberg, a personal friend of the family, visited their home — turned into a campaign headquarters and war room in the drive to find any and all details about their son, Hersh.

As news of the Hamas atrocities continues to unfold, we ask Rachel Goldberg, what matters now.

The following transcript has been slightly edited.

The Times of Israel: I’m here with Rachel Goldberg, and we are in her daughter’s bedroom in Jerusalem, and it has been twelve days since this nightmare has begun. And what’s happening in the apartment, in Jon and Rachel’s apartment, is that there is a hamal, a situation room. It is a room that is sometimes filled with the family and friends who are like family, who have worked tirelessly for hours every day to do everything possible to get Hersh home, along with all the other confirmed Hamas hostages.

There’s been an intensive media blitz, many articles that listeners have been reading, obviously plenty of TV as well, in the States and in Israel. It was something that began on the Saturday night when this all started unfolding. So the team has spent a lot of time gathering information from those who were near Hersh and survived. And Rachel, I’m wondering what’s one particular story or detail that stood out for you among all of the things that you were hearing and that were difficult to process, but gave you the information that you needed.

Rachel Goldberg: So something that comes to mind when this very first started to unfold on Saturday morning, Shabbat morning, first, there’s just this primal terror that everybody goes through when you think your child is in danger. And in this case, it was very much validated that we knew something horrible had happened right where he was. He had sent us these very ominous texts at 8:11 in the morning. And we just knew, as hour and hour and hour went by and news started to pour out from this music festival of this massive massacre that took place. It’s terrifying. So we weren’t thinking beyond, “How do we find him? Where is he?” And thank God, we had this amazing group of people who came over and they were not coming over to hug us, they were coming over to work. And it was amazing that they were able to keep their heads when we were in a complete daze. And to the point where people late Saturday night, when we still didn’t know anything, we had two friends who went down to Soroka [hospital in Beersheba) and one to Barzilay [hospital in Ashkelon] to look through unidentified bodies to see if he was there.

Even the word friend doesn’t describe what they were. On Sunday, when we went to the makeshift police department in Airport City for all the parents or family members of people who were searching for their loved ones. The idea of talking to the media or the press was like the last thing on our minds. And we did on Saturday night call the US. Embassy to tell them that a US citizen was missing. But the real turning point, as we kept saying, “We’re not going to the press, like, this is not a story.” I mean, we were part of a story, but it wasn’t that Hersh was a story, right? So we were just panicked, sickened, did not go to sleep for those first 48 hours, no sleep. And then our team found this picture of the actual bomb shelter that Hersh and his friend Aner were in. And we were able, through some of the young people on the team and through Libbi, through Hersh’s sister, to start identifying some of the other people who were in that bomb shelter. And so then we were able to start this whiteboard of trying to figure out who could get that person’s number.

One of Hersh’s close friends named Omer was unbelievably helpful, and he’s a real connector, and he was able to find the brother of the guy who was standing next to the girl. And finally, we spoke to eyewitnesses who were trapped under the dead bodies in the bomb shelter, who were also injured but were alive, but they were pretending to be dead, thank God. And they’re the ones who witnessed Hersh being taken out of the bomb shelter. And it was heartbreaking for the team to have to tell us this, because Jon and I had just gone downstairs after 48 hours of no sleep, and we had seen the picture of the bomb shelter, so we thought, okay, thank God, he’s not laying in the field next to where everyone was killed at the music festival. He made it to a bomb shelter. Why hasn’t he called us? Maybe he lost his phone in the shuffle. Maybe there’s no reception. Whatever the case, we were really trying to hope for the best. And Jon came downstairs and he said, the team wants to talk to us.

It was like one in the morning. We’ve been up for almost three days now. It must be not good. And that’s when our dear friend Rotem said, “Listen, I went back to the eyewitnesses that we spoke to.” We had been on the call, all of us had. We would sit with the phone on speaker in the middle of the whole team. And one of the witnesses had said he [Hersh] had walked out, he was very calm, he didn’t shout, he didn’t cry, nothing. But he had hurt his hand. She said in Hebrew that he had just hurt his hand.

That it was a light injury, it wasn’t such a big deal.

He walked out. It wasn’t light, but he was able to walk. He didn’t lose consciousness. So Rotem had ended up calling her back and the other two eyewitnesses, and they didn’t want to say, because we were on the call, that somewhere near the elbow down his arm had been blown off, and they hadn’t wanted to tell us that. And of course, as soon as they tell us that, we get sick to our stomachs, and then we start to think the worst. And immediately they said, it’s the left hand, and I’m left-handed, and Hersh is left-handed, and there was something about it that was so sickening from an already super-sickening situation. And I remember just feeling like the blood drain out of my face. And I just thought, “He’s probably bled out, like he probably got on that truck.” They had said he had tied some sort of tourniquet, but I’m thinking, you tie a tourniquet with one hand, right? And how tight are you tying a tourniquet when your arms have been blown off onto yourself, right? And I even said it.

I said, I think he probably died in the field. Like, as they were driving him, they probably took him off the truck, and he died. And that was the turning point where, first of all, Rotem said to me, “Absolutely not. Do not lose hope. They said he walked out, he tied the tourniquet, snap out of it, right?” And then we decided.

So we said, 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.

So that was the turning point, right?

This undated photo provided by Rachel Goldberg shows her with her son Hersh Goldberg-Polin. (Courtesy of Rachel Goldberg via AP)

And so that was a real turning point. America had heard about what happened, and Hersh’s name was a little bit out there and we were saying, no, it’s not the time. And all of a sudden, we thought, we have nothing to lose. He’s dying. He’s actually dying. So that’s when we said, fine, we’ll take anyone who calls us. And until today, until right before you guys called, that’s when we’ve been doing this. And for whatever reason, it speaks to people, his story. And I think it’s just simply that he really is everybody’s kid. Everyone can picture someone who’s like Hersh if it’s not their own kid or their nephew or their brother or whoever it is. He’s just this regular guy. So I think that that’s why, for the moment, there’s interest. I mean, we’re not naive. We know that the way news cycles work is that this will pass. He’s the world to us. He’s the most important thing in our universe, but we know that that’s not going to be the case.

So for now, we feel like if we can save his life; the Red Cross has been on the border trying to get in. Jon speaks to them every day in London, in Geneva, they can’t get in. Doctors Without Borders. They can’t get in. So, I mean, there’s a chance that he died ten days ago. We just don’t know. And that’s why we’re in the Twilight Zone.

Go back to something that you said about Hersh being this guy that everyone can picture, can identify with, can imagine as their nephew or son or brother. Talk to us a little bit about Hersh, who he is, and give us a story about who Hersh Goldberg-Polin is.

Well, I don’t know many Jewish mothers who say, you know, he’s mean. So I think he’s the best thing since sliced bread. But he’s a really funny, witty, smart, voraciously well read, curious, trivia, knowledgeable, geography aficionado. He loves music. He’s really comfortable with people of all ages. What made me feel really good is just in passing, I [read] that someone had just met him, Dina Kraft. Just met him on the first night of Sukkot. He was sitting more on the kids’ side and she said that on the way home, her kids were talking to her about Hersh and how much they liked Hershh and that she said, “He’s the kind of boy that I want my daughter to marry.” And I thought that’s what’s nice about Hersh, is he’s a sweet, kind, respectful guy. He doesn’t take himself seriously. He’s not super buttoned up. I mean, he’s like this crunchy granola.

This undated photo provided by Rachel Goldberg shows her son Hersh Goldberg-Polin. The 23-year-old from Jerusalem was last seen when Hamas militants loaded him into the back of a pickup truck with other hostages abducted from a music festival in the western Negev Desert on Oct. 7. (Courtesy of Rachel Goldberg via AP)

Born in Berkeley, right?

It’s in his genes. And he just spent nine weeks in Europe traveling to six different music festivals. He went by himself with his teeny tiny knapsack with like two shirts and three pairs of underwear and we were thinking, I really hope you wash them. The truth is, he’s a good, decent person. He’s a very sympathetic person, and I like him.

You’ve spoken to nearly every major news outlet as we’ve know, and you and Jon are on the cover of Time magazine this week, which is iconic and difficult to see because you don’t want to be on the cover of Time magazine for this reason. And as you’ve been describing, you were able to tell, to bring this story to the much wider public, to the international audience. It’s a responsibility in a sense because you are representing Hersh and all the other 200-something captives — we don’t even know the exact number right at this moment. And I imagine it’s also something of a burden. And I’m wondering at this point, twelve days in, how that feels. Obviously, you’re going to keep on doing it, but what does that feel like right now?

Well, it definitely feels terrible to be known in any way. I wrote yesterday morning when I was up by four in the morning, up for the day. And it was an extra hard morning for some reason. And I wrote something about like I just want to be nobody.

A Jerusalem graffiti artist painted this image of Hersh Polin-Goldberg, as part of the media campaign to save the US-born Israeli 23-year-old taken captive by Hamas on October 7, 2023, at the Supernova rave. (Courtesy)

And part of the fun of being named Rachel Goldberg is that I was always nobody because I’m the Jane Doe of Jewish women. I always had this anonymity and now to be known for such a horrible thing, which please will have a good ending. So that alone, being known, is awful. And also knowing that however this ends will be known for a long time is also awful. In terms of feeling a burden or a responsibility. I actually don’t feel that. I feel like we are everybody. So it doesn’t feel like I’m a representative for anyone. I actually think we all feel that. I feel every family that I speak to, they’re all speaking to whoever they could speak to and they feel the same. We just have a common mission. That part is fine, but it’s tragic to feel like I’ve lived my whole life just being this under the radar, no one. And it’s been completely fine with me. And now to be known for such a horrible nightmare that we’re going through is unfortunate, to put it mildly.

You’ve been logging these 20-hour days. I’ve read pieces where you talk about drinking your tea in the morning because probably coffee is not a good idea, not an option. You cry into a t-shirt and then get to work. I think that was from People magazine and it was a very potent image. But when you and Jon close the lights at night and do get into bed and do try to sleep, what happens then? Are you able to sleep at all?

Right away, my family doctor called. He saw in the press somewhere what happened. And he called and he said, “Okay, I have prescribed whatever it is, I don’t even know what it is. He said, have a friend go pick it up. And when you do finally get into bed at night, you take one of these and it will knock you out.” And in theory, it’s supposed to knock you out for about 8 hours. We both get up after about 3 hours. It must be the natural sleep cycle. There’s like a period where you could go deeper. And our inner chemistry knows, doesn’t allow you. There’s no time for that. And so we have just been powering on. We have a job to do. And thank God we have this team around us who when we’re getting weak in the knees, they pick us up. And that’s the reason that we’re functioning, period, is because of these people around us. And what I’ve so appreciated is that first of all, I really appreciate that some of our dearest friends happen to be these talented, brilliant strategists who know much more than I do.

An undated photo of Hersh Goldberg-Polin. (Jon Polin via JTA)

But what has really been so beautiful and meaningful are people who I really just sort of tangentially know or are really acquaintances who you don’t really know, who have come with their whole hearts giving us 20 hours, days. And again, first of all, they’re not our friends. They’re not getting paid. They’re doing this at the expense of them working. And they come in, they’ll wave to me, and they sit down and they work and then they leave. I mean, it’s unbelievable. And that gives me a lot of strength. And these WhatsApps or emails that I get from people who I haven’t first of all, some of them I literally haven’t seen since I was in kindergarten. But some of them will say, my cousin was in your sixth-grade class. So it’s not even someone I know. I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times and the editors send us some of the comments that they’ve gotten. This man sitting in some city in China, and [he writes] my two sons are asleep and I have tears streaming down my cheeks and it’s helpful.

I don’t know why. I don’t know why. Because I’ve always thought to myself when I hear about some loss that someone’s had and I will reach out to people, but I always think this probably isn’t really helping them, but I’m going to write anyway, one or two lines. I’m telling you, it’s a life lesson for me. I don’t get it. But it totally helps. It totally, totally helps. And I think part of it is that there’s such an existential loneliness when you’re in an indescribable pain that when other people are just saying we can’t imagine, but we’re with you, that’s enough. Because what I keep saying to people is I also can’t imagine it and I’m in it. Right?

Okay, one more question for you. You and Jon both said that in interviews that your video meeting with President Biden was on Friday, and it was supposed to be 20 minutes, and then it was going to be 40 minutes, and then it ended up being an hour and a half of President Biden meeting with all of the families of the missing who are U. S. citizens, dual nationals. He said a lot of different things in that meeting. But what was one thing that stayed with you that maybe brought you strength and calm? Because he has said a lot of powerful things in the last days.

Relatives of US citizens who are missing since the October 7 surprise attack by Hamas terrorists near the Gaza border, attend a news conference on Oct. 10, 2023, in Tel Aviv, Israel. At the far right, Rachel Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, and Jonathan Polin, Hersh’s father. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

Well, something that happened in the meeting toward the end that was really painful and dramatic. One of the women who was on the call, she was on the call sitting shiva, for she had two daughters, one daughter they had found the day before, so they had just buried her. So she was sitting shiva, but she was in on the call because her other daughter was missing. It’s only twelve of us, so it’s a pretty small Zoom call and President Biden and a few of his people in the administration who work with him. She stood up at one point. Someone else was talking. He wanted to hear everyone’s story. And she stood up and she went to the door of the room she was in. She was out for a minute and she comes back in and she’s walking around, sort of throwing her arms in the air, and she hits something on her computer, which was the mute button And she says, “I have to interrupt, I have to interrupt.” And the president was speaking at the time, and he said, “Yeah, go ahead.”

And she said, “I just got the knock on the door that my other daughter is dead.” And she started screaming and we all, twelve of us, started crying on the call. And he put his hands in his hands and started sobbing. And it was so powerful because we were so with her. And what was really amazing is he wiped his eyes and he said, “I’m telling you right now, I have lost two children, and I know right now you’re in unimaginable agony, but one day you are going to 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 need me to, I’ll call you tomorrow. And you can keep screaming at me, but you’re going to need to allow yourself to be there for your family.” And I just thought it was just a real human moment. And I know that it’s very Western and very American and very touchy feely, but you know what? We’ve been in hell for twelve days now. And it was a moment. It was a whisper of somebody getting the pain.

And that will always stay with me. No matter where you are. With all of this, I keep thinking it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or whatever. This tragedy is so universal in wrapping all of us in excruciating pain that it’s something I don’t know that any of us will ever recover from, no matter what the ending is. Again, I’m speaking to people whose grandmothers are there, whose two-year-old nephew is there, the twins, who are eleven years old who are there, the four-year-old gingy [redhead], whose picture is everywhere. Like this is not normal.

No, it is not normal. And we are hoping and praying for the safety of Hersh and of all the captives and for the ongoing strength that you have to keep on going with this, to find the answers and to, God willing, bring them home.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

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