Oct. 7 survivor brought to campus by Hillel

By Amethyst Martinez

CORRECTION: In the print and original digital version of The Rider News, an article incorrectly described a billboard featuring Israeli hostages with the hashtag #BringThemHome. The Rider News regrets the error.

On the four-month anniversary of Oct. 7, the recognized start of the latest Israel-Hamas war, Rider’s Jewish organization, Hillel, hosted an Israeli survivor to tell her recollection of events.

Since that day in October,  at least 28,473  Palestinians have been killed and 68,146 others have been wounded, according to Al Jazeera, and 1,200 Israelis have been killed, according to the United Nations. 

As Israeli forces continue to invade Gaza territory, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed no end to the fighting unless “victory” is achieved. 

Campuses across the nation have seen heightened tensions connected to the ongoing war, such as protests, arrests and even the stepping down of high-profile university administrators.

Just a few exits away from Rider on I-295, a billboard displays “hostage” flyers of Israeli people, with another farther down the interstate emblazoned with the words “Don’t stop talking about Palestine.” 

Although Rider has avoided most of the war-related tensions, students have hosted awareness events, such as a vigil for those who died as a result of the war, along with a “Pray for Palestine” gathering. 

Hillel, in collaboration with “Faces of Oct. 7,” an organization that brings Israeli survivors to U.S. college campuses, brought Eden Gafner, an Oct. 7 survivor who lived in a kibbutz, an Israeli community, within the Gaza envelope, the area along the Gaza border. 

Upon arrival, Public Safety workers stood at doors surrounding the room, with Hillel members taking attendance of those who RSVP’d and checking ID before allowing guests to enter. 

Ethan Handelman, president of Rider’s branch of Hillel, said that it was just a precautionary measure. 

“We wanted everyone here to feel safe, because unfortunately, people around the country and other places in the world don’t feel safe about being Jewish,” said Handelman, a junior elementary education major. “This was for all the people who attended that were Jewish, that weren’t Jewish, because unfortunately, it’s become … a political issue.”

As the room filled, royal blue pins embellished with a hashtag symbol were worn by many, representing the “Stand Up to Jewish Hate” organization. Others, including Gafner, wore dark blue ribbons for the Israeli hostages that have not been released.

One attendee, Owen McCarron, a sophomore radio and podcasting major, said that he attended to support Handelman and to educate himself.

“I’m not too educated on quite a lot, so I thought it’d be an interesting subject to come out and just get to know an interesting perspective,” said McCarron. “[Handelman] explained a little bit, [but] otherwise, I came in fully empty-handed, but I kind of liked that because it just gives me a chance to take it in at literally level zero.”

Survivor’s speech

Gafner took the stage, where she painted the scene of her life before the latest Israel-Hamas war: 90% heaven,and freedom, along with the lows of missile strikes, anxiety and fear.

As she moved on to Oct. 7, she described a field next to her kibbutz, bright red flowers covering the ground. On Oct. 8, she said, it had become a “murder field.”

“Instead of being all red from [the] poppy flower, it became all red from the blood of the parents and the kids,” said Gafner.

A slideshow behind her showed security tapes of people with guns, videos of missiles exploding and photos of her kibbutz before and after Oct. 7.

She then went on to talk about hiding in the attic of her home with her boyfriend and parents, as they held onto the door for hours to keep out Hamas fighters who invaded the kibbutz.

“I really believed that I was going to be murdered,” said Gafner. “We didn’t do nothing. I didn’t do nothing to Hamas … I believe in peace…. I didn’t understand why they wanted to kill me.”

Gafner recalled hearing a knock on her home’s back door, knowing that her house was “next.” A few seconds later, a knock was heard on the front door, followed by glass shattering. 

“I can see my father looking into my mom’s eyes and saying goodbye from him,” said Gafner. “I didn’t want to accept it. I said ‘No, we’re going to survive.’ I need to believe that somebody will save us.”

She then described how someone pried at the doorknob for a few minutes, her father fighting to keep the door closed. Eventually, the person on the other side gave up. 

After waiting for hours and the family evacuated from the kibbutz, realizing it was no longer safe.

“I felt only guilt because I didn’t understand how we got saved,” said Gafner, who said 100 people were killed in her kibbutz that day. 

Gafner finished her speech with a slideshow of some of those who were killed in the kibbutz, along with her memories of them. One she described as having a “golden heart,” another as having an “amazing smile.” 

“Our story is not going to end, because we have still 136 people kidnapped in Gaza,” said Gafner. “This is my people, this is our people and we need to set them free now.”

After an ovation at the end of the speech, Gafner stayed to talk to Rider students alongside those not from the campus community.

Dar Halevy Feldman, an organizer for “Faces of Oct. 7,” said the initiative’s main point was to fight denialism. 

“Unfortunately, somehow in North America, supporting terror became the mainstream,” said Halevy Feldman. “Seeing all of that, and tackling all that, was very frightening to me. …I felt like never again is now and campuses are the future.”

According to Halevy Feldman, over 55 campuses have hosted Israeli survivors so far. 

Gafner, who is 28 years old, said that she wanted to speak at college campuses after noticing how people denied the events on social media. 

“Yes, I was in Oct. 7,” said Gafner in an interview with The Rider News after the speech. “My home was attacked.”

She said that some of the places she spoke at included Rutgers and communities in New York City, and that she had plans of going to Philadelphia and back to New York after her Rider speech. After she is done in the United States, she plans to return to Tel Aviv, Israel, where her family is currently living. 

Hillel’s plans at Rider

This is only the beginning of a new era of Hillel at Rider, an organization that plans to have a bigger influence on campus. 

Rachel Seigerman, a Hillel E-board member, said that the goal of the organization is to bring Jewish members of the community together. 

“We want to bring more people out and get them connected, and really bring more of it to our campus,” said the senior arts and entertainment industries management major. 

Handelman said more events are in store for Rider from the Jewish organization before the school year ends.

The hope of the “Faces of Oct. 7” event was to bring the Jewish perspective to the campus community, according to Seigerman.

“We want to make people aware of the impact that it has on us and the constant threat we feel, and bringing people together like this makes them feel like they’re not alone.”

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