The crowd started going through security checks at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History about an hour before the footage started. As the early arrivers waited in the downstairs lobby, they spoke in hushed tones. Some people just walked around and stared.
Was it good to see each other? Was it OK to introduce oneself? Perhaps not at an event resembling a funeral.
Inside the theater, groups formed and conversations got a little livelier. But then a woman walked around passing out tissues in case you started crying. People took them and put them in their pockets.
The lights dimmed and a spotlight formed on the lectern on the right side of the stage. Misha Galperin, the Weitzman’s president, spoke first. He talked about the durability of antisemitism from 17th-century Ukraine to the days after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to postwar Poland in the 1940s and ‘50s.
“And it’s happening again,” Galperin said.
Rabbi Albert Gabbai, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, came up next to lead the audience in prayer.
“We must never forget,” Gabbai said.
Then the Israel Defense Forces spokesman on hand, Amnon Shefler, walked up and introduced the footage that the assembled “people with influence,” as a Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia email described them, were about to see: Forty-three minutes of Hamas atrocities from its Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
The footage was taken from Hamas body cameras, first responder cellphones and security cameras, among other sources. When the Jewish Federation invited rabbis, politicians and Jewish organizational leaders to this secret screening, it warned that the images would be “extremely graphic.”
Shefler finished his remarks and let the video roll. The people in the audience sat up straight and looked ahead with expressionless faces.
The opening scenes showed groups of tan, bearded young men riding into southern Israel on a sunny morning. They hollered and raised their guns in the air. They then fired at windshields and cracked them in half, at civilians through open car windows and at near-dead people lying on the street.
They entered a kibbutz, and a dog ran toward them. They shot him three times to make sure he was dead.
They raced into the Nova music festival and sent dancing young people sprinting for their lives. They broke into an empty preschool and walked out with a hiding teacher on their shoulders.
Later, young girls were hiding and huddling together in a room. Two young sons and their father were running to an alcove in their backyard. But a Hamas terrorist caught up with them and tossed in a grenade. An explosion went off. The sons were let out without their father.
They ran back into their living room and sat down. A Hamas fighter opened their refrigerator and started drinking their soda. When he ran back out, one brother said to the other: “Dad’s dead. It’s not a prank.”
Sniffles rang out in the Weitzman theater. Viewers wiped their eyes. But no one walked out.
Hamas fighters were shown dancing, laughing and raising their guns in the air. “Allahu Akbar!” they repeatedly shouted. A terrorist called his parents and shouted euphorically about how he killed “10 Jews” and shared images of the kills through WhatsApp.
“Your son is a hero!” he shouted.
His mother started crying.
As the footage concluded, a graphic popped up on the screen about how we had just witnessed fewer than 10% of the murders committed on Oct. 7.
The screen went dark, and Shefler walked back to the lectern. He thanked the assembled “people with influence” for “bearing witness.” The IDF spokesman also reminded the audience to share what they saw with their congregations, constituents and audiences. No one was allowed to bring their phone in.
As the attendees filed out the doors and up the steps toward the exit, they wore long faces. No one talked.
“The perpetrators of this are inhuman,” said Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel on the Main Line. “To see these images is overwhelming, and it only gives more resolve that this is a war against the forces of evil.”
“I don’t really have words,” said state Sen. Anthony H. Williams, who represents parts of Delaware and Philadelphia counties. “This is not about politics. It’s not about Israel or Palestine. It’s about humanity.”
“Anyone who would see this film would understand the pain that the Jewish community is going through,” concluded Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., who leads Esperanza, a Hispanic advocacy organization in the city. “And might want to reconsider their critiques of a response.”