“Listen to me, Edan. I'm here. I'm with you. I love you. Just protect yourself. Just be safe.” These were the last words Yael Alexander spoke to her then-19 year old son, Edan, on the morning of October 7, 2023. Edan, an IDF soldier stationed on the Gaza border, was later taken hostage by Hamas terrorists.

Yael joins us from her New Jersey home to tell her story of pain, uncertainty, and anguish over the past 152 days. This week, as President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address, she will be among the 17 American families of hostages taken by Hamas into Gaza on October 7 that will be in attendance at the U.S. Capitol. 

Visit AJC.org/BringThemHome to urge Congress to keep pressing for the release of the hostages.

*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC. 

Episode Lineup: 

  • (0:40) Yael Alexander

Show Notes:

Music Credits:

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Transcript of Interview with Yael Alexander:

Yael Alexander: I told him at the end of the call: ‘Listen to me, Edan. I'm here. I'm with you. I love you. Just protect yourself. Just be safe.’ And that's it, we hang up. I didn't know I'm not gonna hear from him again.

Manya Brachear Pashman: That’s Yael Alexander, the mother of Edan Alexander, one of eight Americans still held hostage by Hamas inside Gaza. I recently visited the family’s home in Tenafly, New Jersey, a small suburban town often dubbed Little Tel Aviv for its relatively large Israeli population. 

Throughout the town, there are reminders of the deep connection between its residents, the Jewish state, and its ongoing war with Hamas. A billboard downtown featuring Edan’s picture. A weekly walk for the hostages not yet home. A moment of silence at the start of every school day. Signs of support staked in front lawns.

As of this recording on March 7, 2024, it has been 152 days since Yael spoke with her son Edan. Those days have been a constant whirlwind of meetings, trips, tours—all in an effort to bring him home. 

Most recently, the family went to Israel for a painful look at where Edan was at the time of that last call. At the State of the Union address in Washington D.C., Yael and her husband Adi will join 15 other relatives of Americans murdered or kidnapped by Hamas, as guests of a bipartisan group of members of Congress.

Yael Alexander: They told us it's gonna’ be a long process, but I didn't imagine you know, I thought after four weeks max, they're gonna bring everyone out. And now we’re four months, it’s, I don't have words.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Edan Alexander, a 2022 graduate of Tenafly High School, was one of two graduates that year who instead of going straight to college moved to a kibbutz in Israel and volunteered to serve two years defending the nation where his mother and father had been raised and his grandparents still live.

Yael Alexander: August 2023, Edan came to the U.S. for four weeks. He came to visit us, to spend time with his friends from college. Everyone was here in Tenafly. So, it was like the best opportunity for him and for them, like after their graduation to be again. And it was the best vacation ever. And when I drove him to JFK.

I told him: Listen, Edan, I really want to come and visit you during the holidays. And I told him: I'm gonna’ come by myself, Sukkot. So please ask your commander and tell him that mommy's coming and give you some free time to spend time with me. So, October 1, I came to Israel. He came to pick me up from the airport. And we spent the two days together.

Manya Brachear Pashman: After two days with his mom, 19-year-old Edan asked if he could return to the kibbutz a little early to squeeze in time with his girlfriend before returning to base. He texted with his mother throughout the rest of the week and Facetimed with her and his grandparents on Friday night, October 6th. He was stationed on the Gaza border.

Yael Alexander: Friday night after the kiddush, in our house. He called me and I told him: ‘Listen Edan, let's do a FaceTime. And he's like, OK, so I'm like, looking at him and he just looking so happy and great, telling me that he ate some chicken and rice and it was OK. It was fine. And now he's going to sleep because first thing in the morning on Saturday, he needs to get up to his watch.’ 

And I'm like, ‘OK, great. So say bye to Grandma and Grandpa and everyone’ because we were sitting around the table. And it was very cute of him to change to the FaceTime because sometimes he doesn't want to do it. But this time he was like ‘Yeah, cool. Of course. Let's do FaceTime.’ And, that's it.  

Saturday morning, October 7, I'm waking up because my dad is opening the bedroom door and he's telling me ‘Yael, you need to wake up. It's an alarm outside. It was 6:30-ish in the morning AM and we need to go to a safe place.’ And the first thing that I'm thinking about, ‘Oh my God, I need to check what's going on with Edan. So, I'm texting him, What's going on there? Are you OK? Are you safe? 

And then he’s calling me. It was a few minutes before 7 AM. And he's telling me: ‘Hey, Mom, we are getting a lot of bombs here. It's like a war. I'm seeing stuff. Terrible stuff. But don't worry, I'm safe. But it felt like all the conversation is start, also he spoke a little bit English. He was sound like he was screaming and full of adrenaline. And I didn't know what he's seeing or what is happening because no one knew. 

I told him at the end of the call, ‘Listen to me, Edan. I'm here. I'm with you. I love you. Just protect yourself. Just be safe.’ And that's it, we hang up. I didn't know I'm not gonna hear from him again.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Yael called her husband Adi back in the States. He and Edan’s younger brother Roy and sister Mika flew to Israel the next day. Still, for days, they remained in the dark, unable to get through to their son’s cell phone. Unable to get any information.

Yael Alexander: A lot of bad news, like you hearing, you know, all around. A lot of people murdered, horrible stories, like after a day or two you start hearing about these horrible stories from this morning of October 7, and still nothing from Edan. 

So we went to every forum that it was like, I don't know, it was like … one night, you don't know what's going on, the day after you’re working with people on the phone that you never met, and you just trust them they're gonna find your kid. They had some you know, I don't know. Everyone was trying to help you and telling you, go to hospitals. Go and look, because there is a lot of anonymous soldiers or people. Go and look for him. So we've been everywhere like every hospital in Israel, like we went there and tried to understand where is Edan. 

On Thursday someone is calling me from the army and he’s telling me that he's got a message for us. I didn't understand at first. What is this? What kind of message? I'm on the phone 24/7. We couldn't eat. We couldn't sleep, nothing, like in the loop. Like, try to find my son. 

And then I'm just catching myself like, Oh, my God, you have a message for us? Yes, yes. Where are you? So we are waiting for them. We wait for 40 minutes I think. I couldn't breathe. 

I remember my head like down, you know, between my knees and I'm just trying to breathe and breathe and breathe because I felt I'm going to faint. I didn't know what they want from me. We met them in this discreet room and then they told us that after they reviewed everything they know that Edan is took hostage by Hamas terrorists and they took him to Gaza.

He was guarding a kibbutz that a lot of people got murdered. Thank God, they didn't touch him. They just took him from there. He was by himself. So, it wasn't like a conflict or nothing. Thank God. He was surrendering and they took him. There's something that we know.

Manya Brachear Pashman: It was devastating news, but at that point in time, the best news that Yael and Adi could’ve received because it meant there was hope of seeing their son again.

Yael Alexander: So, it's good. And they're looking at me like I'm a crazy person. Because this is the worst message you can ever get as a parent. My son is my life. He is my air, he is everything for me. But to understand that they took him and he's OK. It was like the world. Wow, wow, wow, wow. Now we can work to speak with everyone because he’s OK. OK, he's a hostage. But still we have the hope that he will come back home.

A day after we had a Zoom with Biden and all the American families. He was really with us, you know, he understand our pain, he could connect to this. He told us, as Americans, we are going to do whatever we can to help you to get through it. Like whatever we can, we are here and we are going to do it. And it was really comforting. It was like we felt the hug. 

We stayed a total of an hour and a half with the President. It was unbelievable because we were so confused. We just got a day before the message. So, we knew what is the situation with Edan, but a lot of families didn't know what happened to their loved ones. Not everyone knew if they were murdered, if they took hostage. Still it was chaos.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  152 days later, eight American hostages remain missing: Edan, Itay Chen, Omer Neutra, Sagui Dekel-Chen, Keith Siegel, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Gad Haggai, and Judith Weinstein. Both Judith and Gad are confirmed dead. Americans Liat Beinin Atzili and Avigail Idan have been released. 32 Americans lost their lives on October 7. Nearly two dozen more have lost their lives since.

Yael Alexander: A few days after, I left Israel with the kids, with Mika and Roy. I felt it was very tough to stay in Israel. I wanted to stay. I didn't want to leave because I felt that I'm leaving my son behind. You know, it's the worst, really, it's the worst feeling ever. But I said to my husband: Listen, it's not healthy here. The alarms, the panic, the worry, it's too much. And they're like in jail, in their house, in my parents’ house. So, it's not healthy. 

I'm gonna go back home to Jersey, and I'm gonna try to have a routine, you know, again, with the schools, with the friends, with the community, like I'm trying to, you know, for them, because it's not healthy. 

So, my husband spent I think two weeks over there without us. I came back. My sister came with me with her kids and all our friends just was here, like, you know, I'm still getting food, everyone is taking care of us and so caring and loving and you feel the hug.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Though Edan’s absence is palpable every day, the rhythms of life have not stopped in the Alexander home, though they are frequently interrupted. Mika is waiting to hear from colleges and shopping for shoes to wear to prom. But she’s also writing columns about her brother, speaking at rallies, and holding down the fort when her parents are away advocating.

Yael Alexander: It’s hard. To be 17 and to handle this, and she's doing a lot. After we came back from Israel, there was a big rally in Times Square, New York. And they asked me to speak, and I couldn't. I was like, numb. I couldn't say anything. So, I asked Mika at the same day. And she did it. And it was a great speech, from the heart. And it was in front of thousands of people. And since then, I am amazed by her. 

It seems like this situation because I'm keeping her also busy. I know that she can handle it, she's feeling like she's helping with the fight to bring Edan home. And this is super important to her.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Meanwhile, in addition to traveling with his mother and marching for his brother, Roy is attending middle school, playing basketball, and preparing for his upcoming bar mitzvah, right before Passover. Edan was supposed to come in to New Jersey for that milestone.

Yael Alexander: The first time that I saw Roy put the tefillin on and I just start crying because he's not a boy. He's looking more and more like Edan. And he's like, grown up now. I’m very emotional now when I’m seeing Roy. When I'm seeing Roy, he's not my little baby anymore … and I'm remembering everything that we've been through with Edan with his bar mitzvah and how little he was and it's very emotional for me now this time because we are such in pain, but still we are preparing for this, Roy’s celebration. You know, bar mitzvah boy. So, it's a lot. It's sad and happy and you still trying to be OK for the kids to see you OK every day. But it's very hard.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Yael, who baked cakes out of the family’s home, and Adi, a diamond wholesaler, are juggling work obligations, meetings with senators and congressmen, travels to Washington and Israel, and media interviews, all focused on bringing their son home.

Yael Alexander: I don't know what's next. Every day everything is so dynamic. I don't know what's going on. Like a day we here, a day we need to go to DC, like this is the thing now. My husband is going to work maybe two days a week now because he can't. We have the zoom. We have the meetings. Suddenly this come and this came. I'm not working obviously. I'm around it all day. All day and all night. You don't want to miss anything.

I feel that everyone is really working. Also with the Qataris, also America, also Egyptians like everyone is doing whatever they can to make it happen. I'm really hoping, I’m going to be in Israel next week, I’m really hoping that some kind of miracle. 

Now I'm praying a lot. A lot. I'm talking to Edan nonstop the whole day but I'm also praying like actual praying and I'm just asking for a miracle. And just to see him, to hug him, to just to feel his perfect face. Just to be with him because, yeah.

Manya Brachear Pashman: The Alexander family no longer lives in the house where Edan spent his childhood. They moved a mile away during his sophomore year in high school. Edan never spent much time in his bedroom. He preferred to be in the center of the action, camped out on the sofa downstairs so he could greet anyone who walked through the room. 

But Yael took me to the room where he slept as a teen. Beside the bed there now is a giant Torah scroll delivered by the local Chabad rabbi, dressed in silver plating and finials that jingle when the scroll is lifted. A prayer shawl is draped over the top.

Yael Alexander: So you can see we have a Torah here. It's a beautiful Torah and this is something guarding Edan and is giving him bless to his return. Every morning, I'm coming in here and I'm doing my prayer. And I'm just talking to Edan every morning and I'm sending him a lot of strength in his heart and his soul. And I'm just here with him. And every night I'm saying ‘Good night, Edan. I love you. You know, can't wait to hold you.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Edan spent most of his young life in Tenafly. A happy-go-lucky guy, champion swimmer for the high school team, and a big fan of the New York Knicks. But he was born in Israel, spoke Hebrew at home, and visited Israel often to see both sets of grandparents. He even celebrated his bar mitzvah there. Yael showed me the photographs in an album she keeps in his room.

Yael Alexander: Oy yoy yoy. Yes, Edan. You see? What a celebration. Yeah it’s everyone.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Still, Yael was surprised when Edan announced his senior year in high school that he wanted to postpone college and try Garin Tzabar, a program founded in 1991 for young Jewish adults who want to explore serving as lone soldiers in Israel’s Defense Forces. 

Edan and 16 other high school graduates, including a classmate in Tenafly, moved to a kibbutz and did four months of training before committing to serve in the IDF.

Yael Alexander: He told us that he wants to do the Garin Tzabar. I don't know, I felt proud. You know, because I've done my army. And Adi was in the Army, everyone doing the army in Israel. So, this is something that you do for your country, you know. For me, it was a great experience. It was great for me. And I thought also for Edan because he's doing this for two years and eight months. He's coming back, doing his college. So, Edan chose to do this. I was proud. I was proud. Yeah. I am proud. Not was.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Edan’s 20th birthday was on December 29, 2023. To call attention to his continued captivity, Yael and his brother Roy traveled to Israel and hosted a blowout celebration with live bands and balloons and media coverage. 

Yael Alexander: It was really important for me to do a celebration for him, to mark this day, I wanted to everyone in the news in the radio, everyone will speak just about one thing about Edan’s celebration, because if he's going to hear something or someone is going to hear it inside, it's going to be the world for me. Because for him to understand that his mom is in Israel and also his brother and we are celebrating his birthday and everyone loves him and miss him so much. It's going to be major.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Yael knows she’s not getting all the answers about her son’s whereabouts and well-being. Still, she continues to meet with whomever will see her and listen to her pleas to bring Edan home.

Yael Alexander: I don't think they can give me the answers. But it's important, because every meeting that you are opening your family, your trauma, your kid, like it's connecting them to you, and they understand it and you're still relevant. And this is something that they're gonna think about it and maybe you're hoping that they will work on it, you know, to make the stand, to connect to us. And to do this.

Manya Brachear Pashman: During the pandemic, Yael started baking cakes. She loved being in the kitchen and Edan loved it too. But since he disappeared, she has not baked a single pastry. She has replaced dough with clay, sculpting in a quiet corner of the basement where she can disconnect for just a little while and think about Edan. She showed me one sculpture that started as a balloon, but collapsed in the middle.

Yael Alexander: Now it looks like a heart and there is like a crack in the middle. And I think this is my perfect piece. It's so imperfect and look like it's not done but I think it's done and I can't wait to take it to do bisque and to paint it because this is how I feel right now. Like with the crack in my heart.

Manya Brachear Pashman: Yael has adopted other coping mechanisms too. A chair and a coffee mug full of cigarette ash now occupy a corner of the front porch as she has resumed smoking, which she hasn’t done since she herself served in the IDF. She also has tried to create the reality she wants to see.

Yael Alexander: We bought a new dining table last week. It's a huge one also because I'm waiting to the celebration for Edan return home. So, I'm telling my husband: ‘Listen, don't say a word. I'm doing that because I'm creating something, and this is something good. So, we need to continue and praying that this is something that's gonna happen.

We just holding and hoping and praying that he's OK. That he's still strong there, in heart and in mind, in everything. I'm all the time I’m praying ‘Please, Edan. Please stay strong. Don't let it break you. Even if you hear the bombing you know people are coming to save you. You're not alone. We are coming.