November 2, 2023
In this heartfelt conversation with Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg, the parents of 23-year-old Hersh, who is among the over 240 hostages held by Hamas terrorists, they detail what they know about their son’s abduction from the Supernova music festival on October 7th and the challenges they face in trying to secure his rescue. They also describe their dismay that world leaders are not doing enough to bring the hostages home and share ways to keep their son and all the hostages’ stories alive.
Take action to bring all hostages home now.
*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC.
- (0:40) Jon Polin, Rachel Goldberg
Listen – People of the Pod on the Israel-Hamas War:
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- What Biden’s Wartime Visit to Israel Signals to Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah
- Mai Gutman Was Supposed to Be at the Music Festival: IDF Lone Soldier Recounts Harrowing Week
- Responding to Hamas Terror: IsraAID CEO on How You Can Help Israelis Right Now
- What is Known About Israeli Hostages Taken by Hamas
- 7 Ways Hamas Exploits Palestinian Civilians in Gaza
- How much do you know about Hamas? Try to ace our quiz and expose the truth about the terror group today.
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Transcript of Interview with Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg:
This is a global humanitarian issue. And every day, I wonder why is the world not speaking in that way? Why is the world shoving this into a simple black and white box of Israeli-Gaza, Israeli-Palestinian? Why are 33 foreign ministers around the world not holding hands and screaming about the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis?
Manya Brachear Pashman:
On October 7, Hamas terrorists broke into homes and raided a music festival, murdering more than 1400 civilians and soldiers and kidnapping at least 245 from more than 30 different countries. Almost four weeks later, only five hostages have returned home. Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg say it doesn’t matter where this happened. It is an international atrocity carried out against innocent lives and families around the world, including their own. But no one is talking about the hostage situation in Gaza in those terms. Why not?
Jon and Rachel are with us now to talk about their quest to bring home their 23-year-old son Hersh and the other hostages. Jon, Rachel: Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
Can you tell our listeners what you know about your son's abduction and the circumstances? It is a widely known story I think by now but just for those few that have not heard.
So, I'll give you a sort of quick version because as you said, I think a lot of people already are familiar with Hersh's story. But he and his best friend who were at the music festival when the massacre started, they escaped in a car with two other friends and started to try to head north to get out of harm's way.
But the road was blocked by Hamas gunmen who were just shooting at point blank range anyone who even got near them. So Hersh and his friends, and many other of the young people who were also in cars trying to escape, just stopped the cars, flung the doors open, and went running to these outside, roadside bomb shelters.
Hersh and his friend Amer ended up with 29, a total of what we believe to be 29 of them smushed into this cinder block reinforced windowless small bomb shelter, which Hamas started to descend upon and threw in initially, hand grenades, which Hersh’s friend Amer was standing by the doorway and manage to actually retrieve, pickup before detonating and throw back out at least seven of them. Three did detonate inside causing a lot of carnage.
And then Hamas brought in an RPG which they fired directly into this small room of young people. And then they sprayed the room with machine gun bullets.
After a couple of minutes of the dust settling, most of those young people were dead. Many of them were severely wounded, some were trapped under the dead bodies and the dying bodies and it is from those witnesses that we heard what happened to Hersh.
Which is, he was slumped with three other boys against one of the walls and they were all somewhat injured but they still appeared alive. And Hamas walked in and said, everybody you know you four stand up and come outside. And when they stood up, the eyewitnesses told us that Hersh's left arm from around the elbow down had been blown off. He had somehow managed to fashion some sort of bandage or tourniquet, and he walked out.
They all walked out calmly. I'm sure they were in deep shock and dazed and traumatized by what they had just seen take place in front of them. And they were boarded onto a Hamas pickup truck which headed toward Gaza. And Hersh's last cell phone signal was found inside of Gaza at 10:25am, Saturday morning October 7.
We subsequently did get a video from CNN’s Anderson Cooper who had come across it in research he had been doing on a documentary about the music festival. And he shared that with us.
So we've actually seen Hersh walking out of the bomb shelter using his less dominant hand. He is left-handed and now doesn't have a left hand. He uses his right hand to board the pickup truck and he turns around to sit down and it's in that moment when he turns that you can see the stump where his left arm used to be. And he sat down and that's the last that we have seen him, heard anything about him in the last 26 days.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
I did watch that interview with Anderson Cooper, where they showed that footage and I'm curious what your takeaways were from that video, what were your observations, and also, did it give you hope to see him?
So on the one hand, as you can imagine it is a video that nobody would ever want to see of their loved one, their child. So basic answer is it's horrendously terrible to see it.
On the other hand, I have been in a position where we need to just look for optimism and hope anywhere we can find it in the last 26 days. And so when I saw that video, my lens on it was, and especially since I know what had preceded it for the 90 minutes before that: the carnage, seeing his best friend killed, etc.
I looked at the video and I saw Hersh looking composed, walking on his own two feet, using his one remaining hand, which happens to be his weak hand, to pull himself onto this truck. And clearly in shock, as one would expect. But I took some optimism from seeing what kind of shape he appeared to be in.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
You said 26 days, I cannot believe it's been 26 days that they've held these hostages with no word. And Rachel, you're wearing a 26 on your shirt I saw. What kind of support are you getting? What kind of conversations are you having with policymakers, negotiators, anyone, that indicates progress?
Well, it's kind of a two pronged question. Because what are you doing to walk through these days is, we are surrounded by a team–beyond angels, beyond friends, beyond professional people who are dragging us along when we can't drag ourselves, and they're very talented, and they're very smart and tireless and tenacious. And so that helps us.
And in the bigger picture, I mean, we've had a lot of conversations with both sides in terms of, you know, we are American-Israeli, so we right away that first Saturday turned to the US Embassy. They were extremely responsive right away, partially because they could be. They weren't at war, you know, Israel, I do cut them some slack for being slow in the beginning, because I mean, there were still terrorists running around killing people in their homes. When we first heard about what happened to Hersh. So we were spread very thin. There were things happening up in the north, there were things happening down south. I mean, I understood why there was a sort of short start to that end of things. On the American side, we've had incredible conversations with you know, as high up as you could get with President Biden, with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, with 15 different senators. They don't care, they said, this isn't a Republican-Democrat issue. This is an American hostage issue. We don't care what stripes you're wearing, people being real adults, which is refreshing and felt very good and supported. And that is a very excellent first step.
We are now on day 26. And I need a little bit more actually, information, maybe action. I'm never one of the people in this that has said tell me what you're doing and tell me what the plan is because I always think that's ridiculous. Obviously, we can't know about that stuff. But because of Hersh’s grave injury, it's different, I think, than if I had known he was just kidnapped and healthy, because I have a very primal fear that maybe he didn't get the treatment he needed, and maybe I'm here on day 26, but Hersh died on day one. So that's very difficult. Or maybe he did get treated and then three days afterwards, they said, well, we don't have any more antibiotics and then he died of sepsis. You know, so there's a lot of different kind of constellations of what ifs that, you know, run through our minds, and that make it very difficult to kind of feel trust and kind of know everyone said it's gonna take a long time. And it's a process. And I feel like well, that, unfortunately, we don't have that. And it's very concerning.
When we were in America, we've had conversations with ambassadors from different countries who were, I think, trying to be helpful. In Israel, we've tried to have conversations with who we can get to, and we're doing what everyone would do, I think, if they were in our situation, but this isn't our world that we're used to. And we haven't found a playbook for this situation yet. There are playbooks for lots of other situations, but we haven't found one for this yet.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
There have been reports that hostages with dual citizenship or foreign hostages may be released first. Considering Hersh is a dual citizen, what have you heard?
I don't think it'll make a difference for him. My personal pontificating is that they probably will release some of these poor Thai people who were swept up in this chaos. Or the Nepalese people, there are, you know, 33 different countries that have citizens that are currently being held. And I think I would be thrilled and elated if Hirsch was released. But I would be also shocked, because my impression is that the people that they're talking about are not people like Hersh.
We both, Rachel and I, are elated for the hostage for their family, for the country, for the world. Anytime a hostage is released. We celebrate for a moment for all of them, and then we get back to work.
The broader point here is, of course, we are most concerned about our son who's wounded. But if Hersh walked in the door five minutes from now, we'd hug him, we'd rejoice and we'd get back to work because there are 239 hostages that must be released.
And the second part of that is, as Rachel talked about, these hostages represent something like 33 countries. This is not an Israeli-Palestinian, an Israeli-Gaza, an Arab-Jewish issue. This is a global humanitarian issue. And every day, I wonder why is the world not speaking in that way? Why is the world shoving this into a simple black and white box of Israeli-Gaza, Israeli-Palestinian? Why are 33 foreign ministers around the world not holding hands and screaming about the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis?
Manya Brachear Pashman:
Rachel said this isn't our world. I'm curious if you could share a little bit about Hirsch's world. How long has your family lived in Israel? How did you end up in Israel to begin with? And talk a little bit about Hirsch.
Rachel and I should say are both born and raised in Chicago, still have our mothers and other family members living in Chicago, products of the organized Jewish world in Chicago, and are feeling a lot of support from Chicago.
Rachel and I moved to California, where Hirsch and one of our other children, we have three kids. Hirsch and his sister Leebie were both born in California. And then when Hersh was three or four, we moved to Virginia where we lived for four years before moving to Israel as a family. We moved to Israel because Rachel and I felt like, it's an opportunity. This is something that our great-grandparents and their parents and their parents longed for and didn't have the opportunity and we do, so how do we not join this ride, as Rachel said.
Hersh is a quiet, I always say he doesn't walk in a room and make a lot of noise. But once he's been in the room for 15 minutes, he's gotten into the hearts of a lot of people. He's a really quiet, likable guy with a sharp, very smart, quick witted. Very curious, he's always been a voracious reader. He sweeps categories. When he was seven or eight, he swept the category of US presidents and knew every detail of every president and their years and their administration and so on.
Not much after that he got into atlases and maps and globes, and that has been a constant in his life. He's been fascinated by the world and by traveling the world, every opportunity, including on his own dime, working, making money and taking trips. In high school, he and Amer, and a few other friends had the chance to go to a few different countries, as 17, 18 year olds on their own traveling. He's been dreaming about this around the world trip for which he has a ticket booked for December 27 to India. Rachel keeps saying, you only need one arm to travel the world so he can do it. That's who he is. I mean, it hit me over the last 26 days as people started to ask us about Hersh. And I really mean this, in 23 years of life, he's never upset me. He's super respectful. It doesn't mean he's a perfect angel, because he's not. But he's just got a very tasteful way of being mischievous with his family, with his siblings, with his parents, with his teachers. That's who he is.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
There was a piece written by Shoshana Gottleib for Hey Alma. Shoshana has never met Hersh in person but long before all of this came across Hersh’s bar mitzvah bencher at a friend’s apartment in Jerusalem and felt a real connection to him. So she instantly recognized his name when she heard he was among the hostages. Did you see that column?
We did. It's very funny. Our family tradition is that for each of the kids' bar or bat mitzvahs, we would make a prayer book that had all of the grace after meals, the birkat hamazon. And in the covers, we had the grandmothers make up songs about that kid, to popular tunes. And as you know, sometimes these prayer books, these benchers, they're called, get sprinkled around, and somehow someone ends up with one in their apartment that isn't theirs. They don't even know the people who it belongs to.
And this young woman had come across his bench, his bar mitzvah bencher years ago. And at that Shabbat table, she started to sing all the songs because the songs are to popular songs that people know. And she got a real kick out of it. And that became her whole crew’s tradition Friday night, were to sing the songs from the Hersh Goldberg-Polin bencher.
He tried to explain this to his grandmother to Jon's mom, and she said, doesn't this girl have anything better to do than to sing the songs from your bencher? So anyway, she wrote, since hearing about Hersh, when she heard his name 26 days ago in the news, she immediately knew who he was, because she's been singing his bencher songs for years, even though she's never met him. So she wrote a cute piece about that.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
There have been really intense retaliatory strikes on Gaza and the IDF has sent troops and tanks into the Gaza Strip. But the ground offensive has been limited in order to avoid endangering any efforts to free the hostages. Are you hoping for any change in approach in terms of this offensive or these retaliatory strikes?
It's such a hard one because we are parents of somebody who is held hostage. We are part of the family of people of 239 families who are now together in this. But even as we tried to separate ourselves from it, and we understand that there is an Israeli national interest here, and we understand that the consensus seems to be building or is already built that we must eliminate Hamas for the sake of Israel's ability to exist and to move forward.
But we don't get involved in the military strategy or the military planning. We obviously are highly concerned about the safety of hostages. But we are equally concerned about the safety of all the soldiers. We've got a house full of people since October 7, who are parents of soldiers on the front lines, and starting to hit closer and closer to home as we start to see the first few names of soldiers killed coming in.
And we also should say that we're concerned about innocent civilians on all sides, on the Gazan side. So it doesn't really answer your direct question other than we are hopeful that this gets resolved in minimum loss of life on all sides. I've contemplated—should they have waited longer, should they still wait longer to go in at all, and I understand both sides of the argument. But I keep coming back to: Hamas isn't going anywhere, they're holed up in there. And so if we can go very judiciously, and still try every other possible channel to get people released, I’m for it.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
Every Friday night on Shabbat you stand out on your porch, you face Gaza, and you bless your son. Can you tell a little bit about how that restores you, how that connects you to Hersh?
Well, I feel like now more than ever, he probably needs a blessing. You know, and this is the traditional blessing that all Jewish parents give to their children on Friday nights. And I feel like he needs it more than ever. And I think I need to give it more than ever.
And ultimately, you know, it's saying like, let God lift up God's face toward you and give you peace, which is so desperately needed. So desperately needed every single place in the world. But certainly when I picture him somewhere, you know, I don't know what to picture and I feel like I am privileged to be able to give that blessing to Hersh.
I think all of us who have children, your first child is what changes you in the world. And you go from becoming a person to becoming a parent. And that's what Hersh did for me. So I will always be a different person in the world because of Hirsch.
The first time, that first Shabbat when he was just a newborn baby, to give him that blessing was such a privilege that I feel like until I am told otherwise, it is my privilege to give it to him and if I have to scream it to him, because he's far away, then I will do that. And I will keep screaming that to him until he comes home or until I am told otherwise.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
AJC and my colleagues here at AJC, of course, have been working with your family to bring Hersh and the other hostages home. Listeners can go to AJC.org/BringThemHome to urge Congress and the United Nations to release all of the hostages. But Rachel, Jon, what more can we do to help you?
Well, first of all, now that you mentioned it, and it was on my mind to squeeze in as well. It's not just platitudes, like our gratitude to AJC is tremendous. CEO Ted Deutch, on down, we've been in touch with members of your team. They've been supportive. They've been guiding us. And we cannot thank AJC enough for their involvement not only for us, but for all Americans and all hostages. In terms of what people can do, we keep saying we wish we had better answers because we feel the outpouring of support from around the world and people asking us that question. We can give a few answers. And those are as follows.
Number one, if this is your thing: pray. Hersh Ben Perel Chana, or Hersh ben Perel Chana v’Yonatan Shimshon. Have him in your prayers and have all the hostages in your prayers.
The second thing is: awareness. We think it's critical to keep telling the story of all the hostages. In our case, it's Hersh, but it's all the hostages. News cycles in the world happen quickly, news cycles in Congress and in Washington happen quickly. And we need listeners of this podcast, we need the American Jewish community, we need everybody who can to keep this story alive, keep it front and center. When the world starts to move on from the story, don’t let them. This is a global humanitarian crisis. We cannot forget these people.
The third is outreach. We, in our case, put up Bring Hersh Home social channels, turnkey templates, talking points, emails that people could copy and paste, a spreadsheet of elected officials and their contact information.
We are trying to make it as easy as possible. We know that it matters, it matters for your elected officials to hear not just once but to hear every single day about important issues, in this case, the importance of releasing all the hostages. We've been telling people, set your alarm for the same time every day, and take one minute and reach out to your elected officials and just don't stop hounding them.
I think that counting is something that's very easy. I think in the Jewish tradition, we are very obsessed with, you know, we count the Omer between Passover and Shavuot. We count days of the month to make sure that we're, is it a 29 day month or 30 day month, we're very conscious. Even the days of the week, we count as the first day, the second day, the third day, we don't have names of it. We count.
And I think that that one minute call to your person who can be on autodial to say, Hi, it's day 25 and the hostages are still not released, goodbye. Hi, it's day 26 and the hostages are still not released, goodbye.
Now, it sounds ridiculous. But if you have 1000s of people making those calls every single day, that is annoying for the person who's getting the call. And we want to be annoying. My mother always said the squeaky wheel gets the oil or whatever.
I'll say also, being distracting, I now realize, is a great thing. When we were in New York. You know, since this whole thing happened, a lot of stuff falls right into perspective. You know, I haven't worn makeup. I haven't worn jewelry. I just put my hair back. We don't sleep very well.
When we were at one of the news outlets, the anchor, not even the makeup woman, the anchor said, Can we put some makeup on you? And I said no, I'm a distraught mother. And he said, Yeah, but maybe it's a little distracting. And I said, Yeah, I want to be distracting.
And so I feel like I would beseech people to go out and be distracting, go out and bug people that it's day 26, and we know nothing.
And you know, we get requests on this social media stuff that we're doing. People are saying can you give us updates? Yeah, the update is they're doing nothing. That's the update from today. And tomorrow–I hope I'm wrong–but the update for tomorrow might be, they didn't do anything today. Like we're working our butts off and we're trying every possible angle we can. And for people to just make a call saying: it's day 26 and I'll talk to you tomorrow if he's not home. If they're not all home. I think is a one minute ask. And I think the impact is great.
Because I do think, we're a David, a mini mini molecule of David fighting a mammoth Goliath here. And I appreciate all the people that keep coming up to me and saying, he's my son too, and I believe it. So do it.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
Jon, Rachel, thank you so much for joining us and sharing this story.
Thank you for having us, and I also just want to give a shout out because honest to God, I don't know what we would have done without the support of AJC so far. I mean it. I mean it from the bottom of my heart. So really, that community will always be with us, no matter what happens.