Keeping the Hostages Front and Center

Empty Shabbat tables are popping up in public spaces around the world as reminders of the missing
By | Oct 31, 2023
Featured, Israel-Hamas War, Latest

Yesterday Hamas released a video of three Israeli women, identified as Yelena Trupanob, Danielle Aloni and Rimon Kirsht, who were taken hostage on October 7. According to Reuters, in the video Aloni looks directly into the camera and addresses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, excoriating him for not securing their release.

Upon seeing the footage, Aloni’s father, Ramos Aloni, was hit with both shock and the relief that his daughter was still alive. But as with many families whose loved ones are either known or presumed to be held by Hamas in Gaza, Danielle is not the only member of the family who is missing.

It is at once impossible and altogether heart-wrenching to imagine what people captured in Israel have been going through for 24 days. And what their families are going through as well. Estimates of the number of hostages taken by Hamas range from 200-240. The Israeli military reported last week that more than 20 of the hostages are under the age of 18, and that between 10 and 20 are over the age of 60. A number of umbrella groups have formed to keep the hostages’ plight front and center in the public’s mind and to press government officials, both in Israel and abroad, to prioritize their release.

Setting up Shabbat tables with empty chairs in public spaces around the world has become one method of reminding people that innocent Jewish lives remain in dangerous limbo.

Last Friday, a group called Hostages and Missing Families Forum set up one of these Shabbat tables with some 200 empty chairs at the edge of the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Families of the missing were joined by Jewish leaders and other hostage advocacy groups such as Bring Them Home Now. Attendees held flyers with the names and photos of missing Israelis with the word “KIDNAPPED” printed at the top. The soft light created by the unseasonably muggy late October day fit the quiet mood of the event and the heavy words of its speakers.

Flyer of missing Israeli child Flyer 3 Flyer 2
Crowd holding flyers

People attending the empty Shabbat table ceremony in Washington, DC, on October 27 hold up flyers of loved ones kidnapped by Hamas on October 7.

“Two-hundred-plus hostages is a global humanitarian crisis,” Sheila Katz, CEO of the DC-based National Council of Jewish Women, told the audience of several hundred. “Innocents should not be used as pawns for any cause or purpose.” Addressing the hostages 6,000 miles away “while it is still Shabbat in Israel,” Katz declared that American Jews would be with them until they came home.

Rabbi Corey Helfand, who leads Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland, echoed this sentiment, saying “we’re with you” in both English and Hebrew. “We will stand together as long as it takes to bring our loved ones home. We will stand with Israel forever.”

“This is a place of dreams, of reflection,” he said, referencing the Reflecting Pool behind him and the Lincoln Memorial before him, on the steps of which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 60 years ago. “Look at this table,” he said. “We carry each of the souls of those who are not at this table.” 

Sheila Katz

Sheila Katz, CEO of the DC-based National Council of Jewish Women

Yehuda Beinin spoke of his missing daughter Liat, an American citizen who works as a high school teacher and a guide at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, and his son-in-law Aviv, who were taken in the attack on Kibbutz Nir Oz. The couple’s three children escaped. Beinin, who on Thursday joined families of other hostages in a meeting with members of Congress, assured the Friday gathering that they would rebuild their communities. “We’re going to rebuild all the kibbutzim.”

Attendees were asked to raise their flyers and recite the slogan of this nascent movement that would give anything for its existence to be unnecessary: “Bring them home. Now. Bring them home. Now.”  A woman in a bright blue dress stood before the microphone on stage and led the crowd in singing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”). When the proceedings came to a close the crowd moved toward and around the long Shabbat table, snapping photos and posing together, doing what families do, hugging, commemorating, and propping each other up in the worst of times.

Woman poses at empty Shabbat table Empty Shabbat table ceremony Woman in Israeli flag


Access Moment‘s ongoing coverage of the Hamas-Israel war here.

All photos by Jennifer Bardi.

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