From September 11 to October 7

From September 11 to October 7

Multigeneration Birthright Israel Excel mission visitors share grim history — and hope

Izhar Shay speaks to the Birthright Israel Excel multigeneration mission about the initiative he began in memory of his son, Yaron, who was killed on October 7.
Izhar Shay speaks to the Birthright Israel Excel multigeneration mission about the initiative he began in memory of his son, Yaron, who was killed on October 7.

On October 7, just a month after Tomer and Ilay Zisser got married, Ilay — a 27-year-old IDF major in a special-forces unit — was killed while saving others in Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza border.

On January 29, his young widow spoke about her loss at the first multigeneration Birthright Israel Excel mission to Israel. She could not have known how deeply her story would resonate with two participants from Norwood.

“This story hit home for my mom and me,” Maya Simon, 22, said.

“I was born in May 2001, and on September 11 my father was killed in the North Tower. Tomer stands in the exact position my mom stood in 23 years ago, a newlywed with so much hope for the future and now newly widowed, after her husband was brutally murdered and ripped from her arms.”

Tomer Zisser, who’d been a Greater MetroWest Federation Global Connections Israeli emissary at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange several years ago, described Ilay as a go-getter, full of love for everyone, and an avid chess player.

“That was exactly how my mom describes my dad,” Maya said. “He was always trying to find the good in the world. Seeing the parallels between Tomer and my mom, I realized there are so many parallels between our lives and those in Israel.

“Tomer and my mom connected after Tomer spoke with us. My mom was able to share with Tomer the sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that even though we just met, we are there for her.”

Zev and Jenny Scherl flank their Israeli cousin Brouria. A Scherl family member from the U.S. has visited her almost every week since October 7.

Karen Simon not only lost her husband, Kenny, on 9/11, she also lost her father-in-law, Arthur Simon, of Thiells in Rockland County.

After the double tragedy, Karen said, “there were people helping to guide me. To be able to do that for Tomer was amazing.”

Her own story, Karen emphasized, “is just one thread in many miles of fabric.”

Maya, a graduate of the Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood and Washington University in St. Louis, completed a 10-week Birthright Israel Excel business internship in Israel in 2022.

She received an email in December from Birthright Excel Community Director Zev Scherl, a Bergen County native who now lives in West Orange, outlining the multigeneration mission. Maya asked her mother to join her, and Karen agreed immediately.

“Some family members asked why I’d put Maya in harm’s way by going to Israel,” Karen said. “I said, ‘I don’t look at it that way.’ Just as my family and friends came running from Michigan, North Carolina, Seattle, and other distant places to be with me after 9/11, I felt I had to go to Israel. We had to be with our people.”

When one of the first speakers, Heart of a Nation founder and CEO Jonathan Kessler, challenged the visitors to “figure out why you care so much,” Karen expanded her “why” definition: “To be there as a witness, to be there to see, to spread the word, to understand that some people just don’t want to hear it.”

Maya Simon is at a “Bring Them Home” rally in Hostage Square outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Maya, too, was inspired by Mr. Kessler’s challenge. “Part of our ‘why’ has to do with being able to stand behind our people when they need us the most,” she said. “The world rallied behind my mom and me at our lowest times. And now, equipped with the tools and experience of healing after 9/11, it is our time to pay it forward. To stand behind women like Tomer who are just starting their healing journeys.”

Karen said she was awed by the “impactful and meaningful” ways that Israelis are dealing with their trauma.

Entrepreneur, social activist, venture capitalist and former Israeli Minister of Science & Technology Izhar Shay told them that his family launched the Next October initiative to strengthen Israel and honor Hamas victims — including his own soldier son, Yaron — by building one startup for each murdered soldier and civilian.

“Of course he’s mourning, but right away he started an organization doing amazing things,” Karen said. “The people of Israel are taking the worst thing that ever happened to them and making something so good with it.”

She and Maya arrived a few days before the official start of the mission to spend time with several Israelis near and dear to them.

Last summer, the Simons hosted two 15-year-old girls from Sderot through the JCC of Northern New Jersey’s Open Hearts Open Homes program. Karen describes them as “my Israeli kids.”

The teens came to stay with the Simons in their hotel one night. They plan to lodge at the Simon home in Norwood again this summer and will work at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

Karen and Maya Simon at an IDF base on January 30.

“We spent Shabbat with the family of the 23-year-old counselor who came with them last summer and is also from the southern area, and was just released from army service in Gaza,” Karen said. “Listening to his parents’ story, knowing their children would be called to fight, was incredible.”

She and her daughter also visited an old friend who lives with his husband in Tel Aviv. “People say Israel is an apartheid country, but I know the truth — that Israel is an open, tolerant society,” she said. “It used to make me so angry when people said these things, but in Israel I stopped feeling angry. I just felt a sense of community and love and resilience.

“I can’t change minds; all I can do is share things on Instagram that may enlighten people. The most ridiculous people tend to be the loudest people, and there are more quiet righteous people than loud ridiculous people. I’m trying to listen to the quiet ones.”

The group of 23 visitors — 20 Americans and three Europeans — as well as seven Israelis who had been matched with the fellows during their Birthright Israel Excel experience, went to see the sites of several Hamas massacres.

“We witnessed Naor Hasidim’s father walk into his home for the first time since the attack in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on October 7 in which his wife, Sivan Elkabetz, and Naor were brutally murdered,” Maya said. “His pain and sorrow were felt through his cries.

“They were just starting their lives together, young and in love. Now the house is tattered with the bullet holes and shrapnel from the grenades the Hamas terrorist used against Sivan and Naor.”

At Hostage Square outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the group met with Shelly Shem Tov and Yarden Gonen from the Missing Family & Hostage Forum.

At the site of the Nova music festival, Maya Simon and two other Birthright Israel Excel Fellows light a candle for Evyatar, a young man kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza.

“Shelly told us about her conversations leading up to her youngest son’s kidnapping, seeing a video of him handcuffed in a Hamas truck and his live location heading to Gaza,” Maya said. “Yarden told us about her youngest sister, Romi, 21, who was shot in the arm before being kidnapped. She was an amazing dancer and had just returned from South America in anticipation of the Nova music festival. I hope that she will come home alive and safe without medical or health consequences.”

On their way to hear Brig. Gen. Doron Gavish, who helped create the Iron Dome missile-defense system, an air-raid siren sent the group scurrying for shelter in the air force base where the speech was taking place.

“Two years ago, I often heard sirens in my last weeks of Birthright Excel,” Maya said. “Israelis moved past us as if nothing happened, ducking into shelters and safe rooms as needed with no signs of worry or stress.

“Now it is different.”

On January 31, the group toured Sheba Medical Center, where many wounded soldiers and all the released hostages have been treated.

“There is a child there, a 2-year-old Gazan, who is being treated for leukemia,” Maya said. “His sister is a match for a bone-marrow transplant. They are unable to bring her to Israel from Gaza and cannot bring the boy back, so instead of letting him die, they are working with the ethics board and the Minister of Defense to bring the brother and sister to Jordan.

“They believe that healthcare is a generator of peace.”

Karen Simon stands between Tohar and Maya, two Sderot teenagers she hosted in Norwood last summer through the One Hearts program.

When trip participants thanked recovering soldiers at Sheba, Maya was surprised to be met with shrugs. “They told us, ‘It is not anything special, it is what we do,’ and proceeded to thank us for coming and bearing witness and listening and retelling their stories.”

Mr. Scherl brought his daughter Jenny, 28, on what was his 30th trip to Israel and his third mission since the start of the war. He noted that Idit Rubin, the Israel-based executive director of Birthright Israel Excel, would have liked to have her own son participate but “since October 7 he has been fighting in Gaza. He could not join us because he was defending us.”

Karen Simon expressed her gratitude to “Zev and Idit and two Excel Fellows who were also fundamental in the planning of this mission, David Pawlan and Sophia Breslauer. I hope everyone at Birthright understands and knows how grateful we are for them putting this amazing mission together for us to experience.”

Her take-home message was this: “If you want to go to Israel and are afraid, leave the fear behind you. Don’t forget about Israel because of your fear. They need us there. Being vocal about your support is okay. Don’t be afraid to wear your Jewish star or chai or dog tag.

“Don’t be scared to be Jewish.”

Paraphrasing the words of Dr. Zohar Raviv, Taglit-Birthright International’s vice president of educational strategy, Maya Simon said October 7 should not become “another hefty dish on our diet of tragedies and another reason to be Jewish. I was a Jew on October 6 and I remained a Jew on October 8.

“We need to make sure we don’t fall into the trap to evoke an immediate emotional response that will mistakenly become a part of Jewish identity in the future. We must retell their stories, but we must not let October 7 define the Jewish people.”

For Mr. Scherl, the organizer of the mission, the takeaway was simply this: “We have to do another multigenerational mission. It was an enormous success.”

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