Local Jews With Israeli Connections Tell Their Stories

Eitan Yahalomi, 12, “was kidnapped into Gaza,” said his Wynnewood-based family member Danielle Gutman. (Courtesy of the Yahalomi family)

To Jews in the United States, the death toll from Israel can read like a number. More than 900 Israelis dead. Now 1,000. Now more than 1,200.

You can go on and on like this, refreshing your social media feeds, pulling up your news sites or turning on your televisions. It feels tragic. But it can also become desensitizing.

But for many Jews in the Philadelphia area, the war between Israel and Hamas is no mere refresh of a social media feed. It’s the sudden mourning of a lost family member or a frantic search for a missing one.

Several wanted to tell their stories.

Hamas attacked the southern region of Israel on Oct. 7. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war hours later.

Amichai Shdaimah

Shdaimah lives in Ardmore. The Israeli moved to the United States in 1997 so his wife could pursue a master’s degree.

His stepmother, Ditza Heiman, lived on Kibbutz Nir Oz. Shdaimah’s kids called her “safta,” which means grandmother in Hebrew.

On Oct. 7, she got into a safe room as the attack started. Around 10 a.m., the family lost contact. They finally got an answer hours later. It was a man saying something in Arabic.

Later in the evening, Israeli soldiers took back the kibbutz. But there was no sign of Heiman. On Oct. 10, the family found a Hamas propaganda video online that showed Heiman. They had gone in through the back door of her home, taken her out and put her into a car.

Lilah Hananel

Hananel lives in Northeast Philadelphia. The Israeli came to the United States in 1999 because her dad lived here. Hananel had a student visa and her husband, a mechanic, had a job.

Her second cousin, Amir Fisher, was in a special unit in the Israel Defense Forces. He had finished his mandatory service but volunteered to stay on a little longer.

Fisher’s unit was sent to the southern region “early on,” Hananel said. He was dead by 8 a.m., according to his cousin.

“There were just massive amounts of people there,” she said.

Soki Cohen-Assouline

Cohen-Assouline lives in Northeast Philadelphia. The Israeli came to the U.S. “many years ago” just to travel, but decided to stay.

Dan Asouline, the nephew of her brother-in-law, served on a police unit in Mivtahim. Asouline and four other officers were circling the area when they got a call from Asouline’s father. “They’re coming in,” Assouline said.

When the officers got to the house, they faced off against 20 or 30 terrorists, according to Cohen-Assouline. All five men were killed.

Danielle Gutman

Gutman, 38, lives in Wynnewood and has been in the United States for three years. The Israeli is doing post-doctorate work in genetics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Her sister-in-law has a cousin who’s missing. His son, a 12-year-old, “was kidnapped into Gaza,” Gutman said. His wife and two daughters were kidnapped too, but they managed to escape when they ran barefoot through a field.

They were all hiding together in their home when the terrorists stormed in. Gutman’s sister-in-law’s cousin was shot.

“We don’t know if they were fatal shots,” Gutman said.

Maayan Lawental

Lawental, 43, lives in Bala Cynwyd. The Israeli has been in the U.S. since 2016 to chair the graduate program in social work at the University of South Florida.

She was flying to Israel to attend a conference when the attack started. Before Lawental landed, she got news that her brother was being called up by the army.

He’s almost 40, so this was supposed to be his last year in the reserves. When he got the call, he was on duty as a paramedic. He found a shift replacement, went home to pack his gear and headed south. Lawental got to see him before he left.

Then she couldn’t get hold of him for two days. But finally, he texted her a thumbs-up emoji. One day later, he FaceTimed her.

“The videos that you were getting of women being paraded naked in the streets bleeding: They are not fake,” Lawental said.

Shmuel Daniel

Daniel, 35, lives in Merion Station and belongs to Lower Merion Synagogue. The Israeli got to the U.S. three years ago so his wife could do post-doctorate work in biology at Penn.

On Oct. 7, he was observing the Sabbath with his LMS community. Finally, the sun set. Daniel opened his phone and had hundreds of messages. One said that his brother-in-law was “severely injured.”

He lives about an hour from the region where the attack happened. As an emergency rescue service volunteer, he felt obligated to go.

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