Join our email list

Bring Our Hostages Home

The following is a transcript of Episode 163 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity/Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Wednesday, November 8th, 2023. 

I’ve gone over and over this, a few times, I’ve written a few drafts, and there’s just no easy or obvious way to introduce this episode. Usually I feel on whatever topic we’re discussing that I have some expertise or special insight. After all, that’s how we choose episodes, topics I feel I can credibly discuss.

But here, what I hold in common with today’s guests, Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin, is that we are American-born parents of Jewish teens and young adults. We all daven in similarly-styled synagogues. In fact, I’ve davened many times at the shul in Jerusalem where John is one of the volunteer leaders. We have a lot of friends in common, and I suspect, if we lived in the same community, we’d have become personal friends by now, too.

I’m sure that we share most of our important values, all of which is good fodder for a Shabbat meal, not necessarily for a podcast. But I simply cannot relate to personally the horror that Jon and Rachel have experienced for the past month, after their son Hersh was abducted by Hamas terrorists and taken into Gaza. What they are living through in their real life, is the stuff of my, and every parent’s nightmares. 

Jon and Rachel had to live with a deep uncertainty immediately after the October 7th attacks about whether or not their son was alive. They then had to discover by a video recorded by Hamas terrorists that he was, in fact, alive, but seriously wounded. They had to adjust to a different fear and horror: that his being alive meant that he had been taken into Gaza, with his fate and his health uncertain.

And now, for 33 days, as of the day of this recording, they have had to wait in the dark for any news of his condition or any possibility that he might be released, neither of which has been forthcoming. 

Hamas committed a massive war crime, a crime against humanity, in the abduction of Hersh and 239 other civilians on October 7th, and every minute of every day, they commit further war crimes by holding these civilians. And, they further exacerbate this criminal behavior by refusing to abide by the civilized norms of allowing any third-party group, like the Red Cross, to visit the hostages, much less attest to their care and condition, much less release them into the arms of their families. 

The thought of it is more than I can bear. But for the duration of those 33 days, Jon and Rachel have taken into the streets, and to the airwaves, telling their story to whoever asks and whoever will listen. I’m sure it’s excruciating, which is why I actually felt bad asking them to come on this podcast as well.

Survivors of trauma and violence can be retraumatized by being reminded of their experience or by the necessity, which is sometimes demanded of them, to narrate their experience to others. They can also be retraumatized by the ethical loneliness, a topic we’ve discussed on this podcast before, that comes from experiencing a trauma, and that trauma not being believed, or being ignored. 

Meanwhile, 240 hostages sit in Gaza, their fate unknown, and every moment that they are there, that we are silent, we are also implicated. Jon and Rachel, therefore, have taken on the shlichut, the holy service, of talking about Hersh nonstop. And talking about this humanitarian crisis, I would say, at risk to themselves, precisely in order that we do not stop remembering, in order that we dare not forget. 

And I want to add, the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, of redeeming captives, is one of the most sacred and treasured obligations in the Jewish canon. Our people have had to do this hard work many times throughout our history. The Talmud tells of the story of a rabbi in Rome, most likely taking place after the great carting off of thousands of Jews, following the Roman persecution in the land of Israel into Roman slavery. And in a heartbreaking tale, the rabbi identifies one of the prisoners in a jail, because the child could finish aloud the verse from the Bible that the rabbi had started to say. The rabbi could only recognize him as a Jew through a shared language that they spoke. 

And thus, the Talmud says, that the rabbi didn’t move from that place until he did everything he could possibly do to redeem that one child captive. 

240 captives is a scale of catastrophe to Jewish peoplehood, and therefore becomes a forge of Jewish obligation, the likes of which we have not seen in centuries. Are we prepared to do what we need to do?  

Jon and Rachel, I’m very grateful to you for having this conversation today. Before we get into the dynamics around what you’re living with and the set of challenges that our people are facing right now, I just thought it would be useful, certainly for me and probably for our listeners, for you to just tell us a little bit about Hersh. Before he was a hostage, he was a terrific kid. So I’d love to hear a little bit about him and let us get to know him a little bit.

Rachel: Hersh is, this is all very objective, this has nothing to do with the fact that I’m his mother and he’s my only son. He is funny and very well-read, very curious, extremely respectful, doesn’t have a big ego, is very obsessed with travel, geography. He’s had wanderlust since he was a little boy. Very, very into using the vehicle of music festivals to also feed that wanderlust.

So he went this summer to six different countries at two six different music festivals spread over nine weeks where he was by himself. He met one friend, the third country in, I think, who was one of his friends from childhood, but otherwise he was by himself making friends, meeting people from all over the world, having really interesting conversations. He loved to like push people to answer hard questions. He liked trying to attempt to answer hard questions. Just a good boy. 

Jon: I’m gonna add two things, Yehuda. One is that Hersh has always been an independent guy, an independent thinker, politically, religiously, et cetera. I think far ahead of his age, some of that independence kind of came out a few months before as Bar Mitzvah, when he came to Rachel and me and said, I have something I want to discuss with you. And we said, oh, okay. And we sat down and he said, listen, I know I might seem kind of young, but I’m ready for my own apartment. I’m thinking about moving out. And we stopped from laughing, but he was ready. 

And the second thing I’d like to say about Hersh is, he’s 23 years old and I think a lot about this, that literally not once in 23 years did he ever upset me. I never once got upset with him. And it’s not because he’s a perfect angel, but it’s because he just has a way, even when he’s pushing buttons, of doing it respectfully.

Yehuda: You know, we don’t know each other that well, but you don’t strike me as particularly public people. I’m curious what the experience of being public people has felt for you, but also I would love if you can share a little bit about what must have been an agonizing decision shortly after October 7th to go public, to make Hersh a piece of the larger story in some ways, the face for so many American Jews, as someone who might be one of our own kids. So what has that been like for you?

Jon: So I will say, I never really thought consciously of, are we private people, are we public people? It’s not something that most people think about. You are who you are. But I have, now that we’ve become more, quote-unquote, public, and I’ll get back to that in a minute, all I keep thinking is, I hope that all of your listeners and you and everybody else in the world is thankful every day that you just live a normal day in your family bubble, in your community bubble, and you just get up and go to work and your kids go to school, and it’s quote unquote normal. 

Like that’s all we want right now. I think that we, and admittedly it’s more Rachel, cause she’s been really the voice in many ways, have become public because Hersh is kind of relatable. He’s everybody’s kid in some ways. 

It so happens that we are American Israelis. And so as one of 10-ish American families, we really not only speak the language, but the culture. We only moved to Israel when Rachel and I were both almost 40. So we still are culturally in many ways American. And so I think that the English language voice has risen and resonated. 

And there is a unique characteristic here, which is, it is what it is. I’ve had people in America say this to me. Oh, Hersh, he’s the hostage with one arm. And so that’s some of what’s made this all rise, but we just want to go back to being a private, quiet family.

Yehuda: Can you talk a little bit about that decision? It seems like an agonizing one, that somebody had to step forward, cause, the order of magnitude of how many hostages there are is so significant. And when it’s one, you don’t have a choice. That’s the person, it’s Gilad Shalit. When it’s 200 and however many it is, we don’t even, I think, know the full number. The decision that for many people it was going to, that it was going to be your family, that you would put yourself in positions to have to be interviewed on podcasts and show up and speak at federations and at rallies. How did you come about that decision and why did you ultimately decide to do this?

Rachel: Well, so in the first 48 hours when we were approached by a couple different places, I don’t even remember what they were because I don’t remember what happened five minutes ago, it’s part of like the psychology’s defense mechanism. So we live in the extreme present. But in those first 48 hours, we didn’t know if Hersh was, we thought Hersh was dead. We had no idea he was kidnapped. We thought that he was dead. 

You know, like, they were still finding bodies all over the camping ground where the music festival took place. When we found out that he had been, we finally got this picture of him inside of a bomb shelter. So then we were excited. We thought, oh my gosh, thank God, they escaped. He and his friend, he was with Anur Shapira. They escaped and they got to a bomb shelter, so they must be okay. And maybe they got to a kibbutz because there was so much misinformation going around, because everyone was so hopeful that the kids who had escaped had somehow gotten to kibbutzim that were nearby and were okay. 

We still didn’t know anything. When we finally found out that he had been kidnapped, we were obviously, we were relieved he wasn’t dead. That’s, you know, part of this alternate universe we live in, is we were constantly saying, well, we never thought we’d say that sentence. Like it’s unusual to say, oh, how wonderful, our son was kidnapped by Hamas, because it then means he’s not dead. But we found out late the second night, 48 hours into it, that his arm had been blown off. We had not known that. And the second we found that out, we realized he’s gonna bleed out somewhere and die if we don’t start making it known that he’s out there somewhere, you know, and that’s when we felt like sharing our story was helping to save his life somehow. 

And that’s when, you know, we immediately kicked into gear and called each of those places that had been calling for two days and said, okay, we’ll talk to you. And from that moment, that, day two and a half or something, any outlet that comes to us, any newspaper, any TV, any magazine, or, you know, this opportunity that I was asked to speak at the UN on behalf of the hostage families, this kind of thing, like these opportunities, we just feel like we always have to say yes, because it’s giving more voice to the 240 people who we’ve come to realize, I really don’t think very many people care about.

I mean, I think that everyone who’s a hostage family and tangentially related to a hostage family cares. I think the American Jewish community seems to feel very attached to these hostages, because they do feel this sense of, it really could have been my kid, my sister, my husband, my parents. But worldwide, I think it’s really a question of human indifference. And we’re just trying desperately to rattle the cage any way we can to get people to care that there are 240 people buried under Gaza. So we’re doing whatever we have to.

Yehuda: I’m going to ask you a really banal question. I don’t know how to ask it. I’ve become skeptical of the idea that people sometimes express that there’s like stages of feelings and of grief. I don’t think there are stages. There’s just loops and cycles. And I’d love to hear from you. If you can, I’m sure you’re exhausted, I’m sure you’re terrified, I’m sure you’re sad, I’m sure you’re angry. What has the cycle of emotions been like for both of you?
And I know you said, Rachel, it’s hard to remember five minutes ago, but I’d love, I think if we’re gonna get through the indifference that people have and the abstraction that people have, it might help for people to understand simply what it feels like in the range of emotions that you’re carrying with you on every single day.

Jon: Yeah, so I could address a couple of emotions. One emotion is just kind of the agony of the unknown. And we’re 33 days into this and we don’t know anything. We don’t know if Hersh is alive. If he’s alive, is he okay or does he have some terrible infection because his arm was blown off and we don’t know if it got treated and if so, in what way? We don’t know where he is. We don’t know what his conditions are. We don’t know with whom. We don’t know any of that. So there’s like kind of the whole world of the unknown. 

And then separately, when I move into the emotions attached to, well, what have we been doing and how do we feel about it? There is just such immense frustration, which is to say, we work 22 hours a day, every day to do something to push the ball forward, that we think has the chance of getting Hersh and 240 other hostages released. 

But unlike any other project plan where you know you’re either making progress or you’re behind schedule or ahead of schedule, there’s no markers here. There’s only one marker of success in this mission, and it’s bring the hostages home. And every day that we don’t do that, we go to bed for two hours, at 2 a.m., and we put our heads on the pillow and say, did we productively maximize the last 22 hours or didn’t we? It’s so hard to know. 

And the lack of response seemingly from the world is so immensely frustrating. We speak to politicians, we speak to diplomats, we speak to religious leaders, we speak to anybody who quote-unquote falls into the bucket of this mysterious group of world leaders who run the world and nobody seems equipped to do anything about it. We get sympathy, we get hugs, but the frustration of inaction, inactivity on a massive scale is just immensely frustrating. Especially when you consider that this is not a Jewish-Arab issue, an Israel-Palestine issue, an Israel-Gaza issue. Of course, it’s hard to detangle it from some of those buckets, but there are 240 souls from 33 countries, a span of religions ranging in age from 9 months to 85 years. This is the epitome of a global humanitarian issue that does not seem to be seen through that lens.

Yehuda: I mean, it is astonishing for all of the reasons that you just enumerated, including the fact that like the baseline thing that’s supposed to take place is at least some neutral third party, a Red Cross, whoever else was able to visit and see the status of the hostages. And it is such a strange, not even a strong enough word, it’s such a strange dimension of this crisis that they, everybody knows that those are the rules, but somehow the fact that those rules are not being abided to is just like irrelevant. It’s just like a topic of conversation within the context of some notion of a fog of war. It’s just not supposed to work that way.

Jon: Forget issues that world leaders deal with, like tax policy and social policies and on and on and on. The most fundamental issue that world leaders need to deal with is citizens of the world. And I know I’m naive here. I know I’m ignorant here. And for thousands of years, lots of citizens in the world have gotten a bad deal. 

But 240 souls, without anybody knowing anything about them for 33 days across 33 countries? Why? Why are there not 33 prime ministers, foreign ministers, locked arm and arm, screaming for attention to this matter? And the frustrating thing is we don’t even know where to turn, right? People talk about the Red Cross and we’ve talked to the Red Cross. And for 33 days, we’ve been told, we’re here at the border, we want to go in, but we can’t get in. 

I don’t even know if that’s true. Is it because the Red Cross isn’t pushing hard enough? Is it because the world leaders aren’t pushing hard enough on Hamas to let the Red Cross in? We don’t even know how to get this whole quagmire unstuck.

Yehuda: Let me ask you a political question, which I think is more resonant, especially for American Jews, who are more divided, I think, than Israelis are about the legitimacy of the war. And I consider that to be a little bit of a source of shame as an American Jew. But there are ways in which some people might use the story of the hostages to make a political argument. Israel should not wage this war. Israel should prioritize the hostages over fighting the war. 

I haven’t heard either of you take a stance like that. You’ve been very kind of squarely focused on arguing about the centrality of the hostages, but not in order to make a political claim about the legitimacy of Israel’s air attack or the legitimacy of a ground invasion. Can you talk a little bit about that, to help, especially American Jewish listeners understand that it’s actually possible to hold multiple commitments about this war at the same time?

Jon: So I’ll take a stab at that from a few different angles. Number one, maybe the world isn’t aware of this, but Israel is a 75-year-old sovereign country with a government that we could like or not like, but they make their own decisions and they could listen to what the US and other countries in the world have to say. But Israel has a government that makes decisions for its 10-ish million citizens and that’s what they have to do. 

Within that, there is debate, and I would say the debate is growing in the country now between two simultaneous missions, the mission of win this war, whatever that means, and we could discuss it later or not, and release the hostages. 

And how much are those two things in parallel, in sequence, in conflict with each other? What we are heartened by is, it did feel like for the first 17, 18, 19 days of this that we were hearing a lot of talk around war planning and war goals and not a lot about the hostages. And the heartening news here is in the last 10 days, the citizens’ voice seems to be rising dramatically in favor of, we need to do something for these 240 souls that are somewhere in Gaza. 

And it feels like their voices are being heard by the Israeli government. It’s hard for me to quantify that or qualify it, but it feels to me like the citizens’ voices are rising and having influence here.

Yehuda: Is it clear to either of you what that would look like from an Israeli government standpoint? I mean, my sense from very far away is that there’s so many problems with this government. There’s been a kind of real alienation from the suffering of the people that’s been exercised this government, on top of the intelligence failures, the military failures. 

But is there a clear, and I’ll do, we’ll do American Jews in a moment, but is there a clear kind of ask that the families of the hostages are trying to make of the Israeli government right now that you want to make public?

Rachel: I mean, the party line within the Bring Them Home network, we were at the big headquarters yesterday in Tel Aviv, and then I spoke at their, there was a giant, not quite a rally, I don’t know what it was, at the Kotel last night, their line, they are very clear, you need to bring them home now. You do whatever you have to do. You pay whatever price you have to pay. We know it’s gonna be a steep price, because that’s the way that we roll, because Jews value life.

And if you value something expensive, and we know that there will be a huge price to pay, we don’t know what that price is, and the organization feels, if you know you’re going to ultimately pay the price, then do it now.

I was just thinking about it in terms of, you know you need a new refrigerator, you know it. You can buy it tomorrow and start having your food be refrigerated properly, or you can wait three more months. The price will either be the same or it might go up. It’s not gonna go down. So just buy it, you need it. So like that’s kind of the party line in there and that it should be, all of them, there’s no, you know, you don’t take the baby before the elderly or whatever it is. That’s the organization’s line.

I haven’t really thought so much about it, because truly I just feel I’m very disillusioned right now. Like just the last few days have just been very, I don’t know, we’ve both kind of went into like a little bit of funk, of feeling really so disillusioned by all world leaders, all Israeli leaders, almost to some extent like human beings, like the indifference that human beings have toward other human beings. And so we’re kind of in a little bit of a funk. 

Jon: I’ll tell you, I feel like we have been guided to show deference to again, these quote-unquote world leaders. For 33 days, I’ve been addressing senators with a capital S, and Congress people with a capital C, and religious leaders with capital letters in front of their names, and a lot of superlatives, excellency and honorable, and all these kinds of respectful words. 

And I’m at the point where I’m saying to myself, we elected you, we as taxpayers pay your bills, and I don’t mind showing you respect, but just do your basic jobs. And some of them are, let me be clear, we feel really supported by a lot of people. 

But our timeline is different than theirs. We’re 33 days into this. We want the 33rd day to be the last day before they all walk in their doors. And other people have their interests and their timelines. And what’s the difference? 33 days, 34 days, 35 days, we’re working. It’s not enough and it’s not fast enough.

Yehuda: Yeah, and it’s the most basic responsibility of government, as you said before. And your line, Rachel, about the cost is profound. The famous statistic, of course, is that when Gilad Shalit was abducted, the price was 1,100 prisoners. And then for years, they negotiated. And then the price that they ultimately paid was 1,100 prisoners. There’s no Black Friday. There’s no point that this, in which this actually, 

Rachel: Right, exactly. So just move on with it. Either pay the price or like, you know, I mean, I don’t know what the alternative is. I don’t, like now at this point, we feel like, like we know that Hamas designed this in many ways to torture the loved ones of the people they took. You know, and we were told even at the UN, people who worked their whole lives with hostages have said, oh, they’ll never give you proof of life. Because it’s the bang for their buck is that they’re torturing you too. 

So I am not surprised that Hamas is torturing me. I’m surprised that the Israeli government is torturing me. And that’s where, like in the last few days, we started to just feel awful, and many families that we’ve spoken to have also said, and the fact that, you know, and I appreciate, I am very sympathetic to the fact that there’s a war going on. There are millions of people whose lives are at stake here, and there are hundreds of thousands of soldiers whose lives are at stake here. So I understand there’s like a lot going on, so they don’t really have time for any of us. 

But I feel like there are people available within the government who aren’t in all those meetings, who could actually take some time and maybe go pay some shiva calls to families who lost people on October 7th, or maybe stop by a house of someone who has a hostage, who’s being held underground for 33 days. 

And it’s a hard pill to swallow, as a Jew, where, we love to think of ourselves as so much better than everyone else. And that we, you know, the Jewish people, we care and we show up, and they haven’t, you know, and so that’s disappointing. 

Jon: Well, the community, the global community has. The outpouring of support that we get from literally all over the world, strangers who don’t know us and send words of encouragement and want to be helpful in any way they can, is heartwarming and does lift our spirits in a really hard time. 

Unfortunately, I don’t know that those people reaching out to us from Germany, Italy, and elsewhere with words of encouragement are going to be the ones who are going to deliver the freedom of these 240 souls that so desperately need that freedom.

Yehuda: Let me ask you the last question because you’ve been generous with your time. I was in your hometown last week. I think it’s your hometown. It was in Richmond, Virginia, which I think is the place from which you made Aliyah. I was there on, I don’t know, some point last week for their big community event. 500 people came out and it was very powerful to just stand together and light yahrzeit candles and be in community. 

And I think many of us as American Jews are seeking to be supportive and in solidarity with you. And let me put this crudely, what do you want from us? What do you want us to know? What do you want from the American Jewish community? And tell us because we’re far away and people are opening up their pocketbooks and they’re caring deeply, but I think many of us wanna feel like we wanna be able to do more.

Jon: So 33 days into this, we still wish that we had a better answer to that question. But I’ll tell you what we can answer is, there are a few buckets where people’s support is meaningful and can help. Number one is awareness. We keep talking about this, but I think that this story of hostages is still getting some conversation and some media play. 

But media cycles move quickly, congressional cycles move quickly, and I’m very fearful that the day is going to come tomorrow or in a week or in 10 days, and the story is going to fall off the radar, we cannot allow that to happen. People must remember that there are 240 people from around the world being held hostage and we will not stop talking about it until they all come home. That’s number one. 

And the tools to help do it are, Bring Them Home Now is an amazing organization of volunteers speaking on behalf of every hostage. They’re all over social media. Follow Bring Them Home Now. We as family members are also telling Hersh’s story @bringhershhome on all social channels. You can follow there too and spread the word from there. So raise awareness.

Number two, we know that it helps to reach out to elected officials and specifically in your case, I’m gonna talk to the American audience with the partnership of Bring Them Home Now. We put up a website One Min a Day. We could give it to you to post in the notes. It makes it as simple as possible for every American to immediately find who their elected officials are and call and or write to those elected officials. We give talking points, guidance, et cetera. So reach out and do outreach. 

Rachel: I just wanna say on that, it’s even easier than that sounds. You go to One Min a Day, you enter your your zip code, and it pops up with the phone numbers of the local elected officials. We also have, on that landing page, the switchboard and comments line at the White House. While you’re boiling your water for your tea or coffee in the morning, you just dial that number, whichever one you want, your local official or President Biden, who we’ve had a great experience with President Biden and the administration. 

But every day they have to be told, good morning, it is day 33 and we noticed there are still 240 hostages buried under Gaza and we’re not okay with it. Goodbye. And it is a 15-second commitment. It’s ritualized. You do it every single morning. We know that last week we were tracking that it was between 150,000 to 200,000 people had actually called their elected officials.

So at the beginning of this week, I actually said, let’s re-channel this and just call the White House. Because they calculate the metrics and keep data of who’s calling in, what are people commenting on, and what is the switchboard taking calls about. It’s important that number of 100,000 or 200,000 get up to a million, a million people a day, a million people a day at least have to call, every single day the White House and say it is day 32. I’ve noticed that 240 people are still buried under Gaza and I’m not okay with it. Have a nice day. It has to be every day. It has to be ritualized because then it cannot fall off of the radar. And that’s a very easy ask. It really is less than a minute.

Jon: The third thing I’ll say is whether your listeners are Jewish or Christian or Muslim or any other religion, for those who pray, pray for the hostages. We do it. We find solace in it. And if that works for your listeners, think about the hostages.

Yehuda: I’m really grateful to both of you for taking a little bit of time today. We love you and we’re thinking about you. And on behalf of as many American Jews as I can muster, we’re praying for you and may God look over your family and especially over Hersh.

Rachel: Amen, amen. 

Jon: Thank you, Yehuda. Thank you.

Rachel: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Yehuda: Thank you so much for listening to our show, and special thanks to my guests this week, Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg. 

Identity/Crisis is produced by M. Louis Gordon, our executive producer is Maital Friedman, and our show is produced with assistance from Sam Balough and Tessa Zitter. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC, and our music is provided by Socalled.

For more ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute about what’s unfolding right now, sign up for our newsletter in the show notes or you can visit us at We’re always looking for ideas of what to cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about or comments on this episode, you can write to us at identitycrisis@shalomhartmanorg. You can rate and review our show on iTunes to help more people find it. You can subscribe to Identity Crisis everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, stay safe, and thanks for listening.

More on
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics