December 14, 2023
Hanukkah commemorates the legendary underdog story and unlikely hero Judah Maccabee who led the Jews to victory against the Seleucid Empire, removed the statues of the Greek gods and goddesses from the Second Temple, and restored Jewish worship there.
Although the October 7 Hamas massacre produced unprecedented devastation in Israel, it also gave rise to modern-day Maccabees. As we usher in Hanukkah at the darkest hour in recent memory for all of world Jewry, we recognize the courage of the following eight individuals — one for each night of Hanukkah. Some of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Others have survived against the greatest of odds. All of them are showing us the light.
Youssef Ziadna - A hero behind the wheel
Youssef Ziadna has given new meaning to the concept of a “magic bus.”
The Bedouin mini-bus driver is credited with saving 30 Jewish Israelis from the attack on the Nova music festival. Once he reached the Sa’ad junction, a mile away from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, Ziadna was met by a man who had escaped the attack and frantically signaled to the driver that he should make a U-turn.
Yet Ziadna pushed through, more than doubling the capacity of his 14-passenger van and navigating a flurry of rockets and gunshots along the road to safety. “I had an option to go back,” Ziadna said. “A weaker man may have done a U-turn at that junction. But I said no way, I will throw myself at death if it means I can save lives.”
Rimon Kirsht - A hero of love
What would you sacrifice for your spouse? Rimon Kirsht was willing to give up freedom from Hamas captivity.
Although she was eventually released while her husband Yagev Buchshtav is still being held hostage in Gaza, Kirsht fought as hard as she could to prevent the couple’s separation. According to one of her relatives, “When they told her she was being released, she didn’t want to go. She told them, ‘Either we leave together, or I stay here, and no one gets released.’” Her attempted sacrifice didn’t materialize, yet Kirsht remained defiant. Before she left Gaza, she was filmed bravely and defiantly giving her captors, Hamas terrorists, what has now become known as an iconic death stare.
Staff Sgt. Roey Weiser - A hero of selflessness
In the process of diverting terrorists’ attention away from his besieged base at the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza, Staff Sgt. Roey Weiser allowed at least 12 other soldiers to escape and survive.
The Israeli-American soldier from the Golani Brigade paid with his life, but his selfless act won’t soon be forgotten. He “died how he lived, by putting others first,” said his mother, Naomi Feifer-Weiser.
“Roey lived his life to the fullest, almost always with a smile on his face,” she said. “He was always looking for ways to help those around him, and before he was conscripted he was a volunteer firefighter who was always the first to jump into action when needed.”
Ariel Bilya - A hero of his family
Ariel Bilya was originally scheduled to join the IDF reserves the day after the Oct. 7 attacks. But he never donned the uniform. He died in an unexpected battle, successfully saving 10 members of his family, including a newborn baby.
Bilya fought off invading Hamas terrorists with a metal rod so that members of his immediate and extended family could escape from a home in Ofakim, where they were spending the Simchat Torah holiday. He was shot dead while attempting to flee via the window, while the rest of his relatives were subsequently rescued from a neighbor’s roof.
“It’s a tragic miracle,” said his sister-in-law, Michal. “We were at one funeral instead of 11. The ending is sad and happy together.”
Lisa Fliegel - A hero of healing
As a trauma therapist who spent more than 30 years working with Israelis and Palestinians, it’s almost as if Lisa Fliegel had trained for the aftermath of Oct. 7.
Fliegel, who formerly lived on a kibbutz, is a consultant to the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute. She has trained trauma workers in Israel and the West Bank, as well as in Northern Ireland, and has worked with survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing and with family members of homicide victims in that city.
Following the Hamas attacks, she departed the Bay State of Massachusetts to the Jewish state of Israel, to help heal the countless Israelis traumatized by the attacks on their Gaza-adjacent communities.
“My whole philosophy is that therapists need to be in the trenches,” she said. “People need to know that you are in their world and seeing what they see and they experience.”
Yossi Landau - A hero on a holy mission
For ZAKA — Israel’s volunteer organization for disaster victim identification, search and rescue, and the recovery of human remains — October 7 was an unthinkable day.
That’s doubly true for Yossi Landau, ZAKA’s head of operations for southern Israel. Yet Landau is unflinchingly committed to the task at hand.
“I am telling the volunteers that we are on a mission,” he said. “It’s a holy mission. It’s in our religion...We are going to get everybody to have a grave and a place where their family should be able to come and say a blessing and give a blessing.”
ZAKA is renowned in Israel for its solemn, sacred work to honor those who meet sudden death and ensure a proper Jewish burial. ZAKA volunteers processed more than 670 bodies in the first week following the October 7 attack. Landau’s team members also collected the bodies of terrorists and gave them the same treatment as Israeli victims, even after witnessing the horrors they had perpetrated against the Israeli people.
The unfolding shock and horror were occasionally pierced by moments of solace, as when a crying baby was found in the back seat of a car. Sadly, the baby’s parents were not spared. The family was emblematic of ZAKA’s motto: “To save those who can be saved, and honor what remains.”
October 7 and its aftermath brought a haunting sense of deja vu for Landau, who was also a first-responder after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
“I’m a survivor of the Sept. 11 attacks,” he said. “I was there. I helped out with the bodies, I helped out with the people. So, nothing is new for me.”
The Pain of Rescue and Recovery: Read Landau’s harrowing story in remarks to AJC’s Board of Governors
Rachel Edri - A hero of hospitality
What would you do if Hamas terrorists entered your living room? Rachel Edri served them tea and cookies. She even sang to them in Arabic.
“One of the terrorists said to me: ‘You remind me of my mother,’” she recounted. Edri said she replied to the attacker, “I am really like your mother. I will help you, I will take care of you. What do you need?”
The unlikely gesture of hospitality worked, buying her time until police arrived at the scene and freed her, ultimately killing the terrorists. Her creative, lifesaving solution has earned her folk hero status.
Bar Ben Yaakov and Matan Sivek - A hero for the hostages
“Bring Them Home” has been a prominent rallying cry for world Jewry ever since Hamas kidnapped 240 people from Israel. But who is helping the relatives of hostages advocate for the return of their loved ones while they are agonizingly waiting?
Bar Ben Yaakov and Matan Sivek, a young Israeli couple living in D.C., dropped everything after Oct. 7 to help make families of hostages whole again. Most importantly, they raise the awareness that generates momentum for the hostages’ release.
Through their work with the Hostage and Missing Families Forum, Bar and Matan help bring countless family members of hostages to the nation's capital to meet government officials, diplomats, community leaders, and the media to share the harrowing stories about their loved ones held by Hamas in Gaza.
The effort appears to be bearing fruit, as more than 100 of the hostages held by Hamas have now been released. In this way, Bar and Matan, along with the Hostage and Missing Families Forum and literally thousands of other dedicated volunteers, are continuously bringing light to this dark time.