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Hannah Wacholder Katsman
Writer and Advocate
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Comfort among the mourners

When Hamas murdered my son Hayim z”l, I knew the grieving would be a public affair. I did not know it would console others
Courtesy of Noga Tarnopolsky

My son Hayim Yeshurun Katsman z”l was murdered by Hamas on the holiday of Simchat Torah, otherwise known as October 7 or hashabbat hashechorah  (the black Sabbath). Over 1000 Israelis and others living, working, and serving in the area known as the “Gaza envelope” were massacred. Hayim’s body was identified quickly. A representative of Kibbutz Holit, where Hayim had lived for the last eleven years, called at 2:20 on Sunday morning to let me know that the army had located his body. About two hours later, a policeman and social worker came to the door to officially notify me.

For all practical purposes, our family began to sit shiva that Sunday morning. Comforters trickled to the house, filtered by the members of my community who took shifts throughout the day to serve meals and deal with the family’s multiple practical and bureaucratic needs, including those of my four young grandchildren. At any moment we expected to learn that Hayim’s body had been released so that we could set the time for the burial. In Israel, it’s rare for a funeral to be delayed for more than a day or two. Although the waiting felt interminable, in retrospect we were lucky to be able to hold the funeral on Thursday evening, five days after his death. Some families are only getting notification now, after nearly three months, because the bodies of their loved ones’ bodies were incinerated beyond recognition.

During those long days before the funeral, messages of condolence inundated my email, WhatsApp and Messenger accounts. I heard from childhood friends, former co-workers, distant relatives, parents of my children’s friends, and eventually even my 89-year-old third-grade teacher. Hayim’s friends, colleagues, teachers and students sent memories and pictures from his childhood, his recent trek to India, his years studying for his doctorate in Seattle, peace activism, music, and his life on Holit where he served as gardener and was recently elected as head of the kibbutz council.

What stood out most was the variety and intensity of the connections that Hayim had made. Colleagues and friends alike noted how he approached each person as an individual, with no sense of ego or superiority. Most people he met didn’t know about his doctorate or his many talents. He saw everyone as equal, no matter their gender, race, religion, nationality or political opinions.

I began reposting these messages and photos on my Facebook wall, allowing friends and followers to mourn with us. Each one demonstrated a different aspect of Hayim’s qualities and interests. I also received inquiries from press outlets around the world, particularly in the US. I believe he was the victim most reported on in the days after the massacre, because of his US citizenship, the years in Seattle, and his peace activism (not to mention the abundance of flattering pictures).

In “normal” times, people in communities take turns caring for sufferers. Death and illness happen more or less randomly. Before October 7, paying a shiva visit often felt like a nice thing to do or even an unwelcome obligation, an interruption to our hectic schedules. After Simchat Torah, our society experienced an enormous amount of suffering all at once. People needed to care for the families of the dead, the injured, and the traumatized, the 200,000 Israelis who were displaced from the north and the south to safer locations, and the partners and children of those called up for reserve duty. My own daughter arrived from Beersheva with her small children after her husband’s unit was called up, although he was able to stay with us until after the shiva. There have been multiple campaigns to meet the needs of the soldiers too.

I realized early on that because Hayim’s death was part of our national story, the mourning would be public. Expecting a crowded and hectic shiva house, we publicized times to allow the family for meals and a reasonable bedtime. I realized that I would have to push my personal grief aside until after the shiva. You can fall apart later, I told myself.

The shivas in the aftermath of the October 7th massacres had a surreal quality. Not everyone could cope with their intensity. One friend told me that after getting to my building, she couldn’t bring herself to come inside because she was so afraid of saying the wrong thing. But others felt compelled to be there. I noticed that parents who have lost a child made a special effort to come, members of a “club” I now belong to. For others, I was the only personal connection, no matter how faint, to this national tragedy. It seemed that the comforters who had the least connection to me or Hayim appeared the most affected. I think they needed to be there the most.

During this period, I realized that I had a role to play, a mission if you will. Aside from typical mourning activities like sorting out Hayim’s personal effects and preparing the text for the tombstone, I found myself serving as a kind of container that allowed people to process their own grief.

This was crystallized during a shiva visit from my friend Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, whom I had only known online until then. Rachel’s son Yosef z”l tragically died by suicide earlier this year as a consequence of mental illness. At the shiva, she told me how she coped by grasping at what she called in Hebrew pisot nechama, fragments of comfort. She searched for any memory that allowed her to feel good while pushing away the bad ones.

“But you, you have so many pisot nechama,” Rachel went. “All those stories about Hayim that you are sharing. They will help you later on, when everyone has left and you are alone.”

Rachel had one more thing to say. “Your posts about Hayim comfort me too.” I hadn’t imagined that stories about Hayim could comfort a mother who had lost a child to suicide. This resonated with me.

The fact that my private mourning has a public effect hit home in a bigger way, a month after October 7th, when I attended a memorial and protest service at the Knesset. The organizers asked to bring signs, so I had a sign printed that included Hayim’s photo and a description of his many occupations. I invited friends to come along and hold them with me. The colorful sign, designed by my CWJ co-worker Rachel Stomel, came out so well that I felt a bit like an over-achiever, but holding it felt good. I needed my grief to be recognized. A steady stream of people approached me at the event, sharing how they had also lost friends and family in Holit. Others had been Hayim’s students at the pre-army academy where he taught, his academic colleagues, journalists, and people who knew me from online spaces.

But I was most moved by what happened afterward while waiting with my friends at the bus stop. The ten or so people waiting noticed the signs with Hayim’s picture and began to ask questions, listening intently as I told them about his life. They stood in a half circle around me. A woman I didn’t know who had attended the memorial sat next to me on the bench and clutched my hand.

“Who is he named after?” asked one woman. (My mother’s father, Hayim Yisrael).

After I mentioned that my father was a Holocaust survivor from Poland, she asked,“What hasidut was your father from?”

“Gur” (Gerrer), I replied.

“I knew it!” she said.

A young haredi woman and her husband approached before continuing down the street. “Our apartment in Netivot suffered a direct hit,” she said. “I feel for you.” The bus never did show up.

I saw a comment by someone who confided that he envies people who lost family members in the massacre. I completely understand. In a way, carrying that sign, whether the physical sign or the permanent one in my heart, is a privilege. Some of those people at the bus stop, particularly the haredim, might not have had another way to feel connected. Carrying my sign around, whether figuratively or literally, comforts me and, so it seems, comforts others.

In truth, all of us in Israel, along with Jews around the world, are in mourning. We all need comfort. Hamas didn’t attack Hayim personally because of who he was, or even in spite of the fact that he was a peace activist. (Unfortunately, some people have coopted his memory in order to justify a hateful agenda against all Arabs.) Hamas attacked Hayim because he was a Jew and an Israeli. In that way, those terrorists who killed him attacked us all. We are all mourning, not only for the 1,200 who were killed, for our fallen soldiers, and, I hope, for the innocent Palestinians on both sides who have been killed. We mourn our sense of security, the faith in our government’s ability to protect us, and the happy times we enjoyed before October 7.

May we all be comforted among the mourners of Jerusalem and Zion.

Along with sharing personal messages about Hayim on my Facebook wall and on his memorial page, I participated in a number of interviews. Despite the circumstances, I was honored to be the first guest on the new podcast, Voices of Women at Wartime, put out by my organization the Center for Women’s Justice. In the episode, I share a few anecdotes about Hayim’s childhood. I hoped to illustrate his sense of integrity and search for peace and justice, as well his sense of humor. I also describe the way that he died, while saving his neighbor Avital’s life. I encourage you to listen to the rest of the ongoing series to learn how Israeli women are responding to the events of October 7 and its aftermath.

About the Author
Hannah Wacholder Katsman is the Resource Development Coordinator for the Center for Women's Justice, an advocate for abuse victims and a writer. Her work on parenting, public health, women’s rights and sex abuse has appeared in The Forward, Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post and Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and on her websites AMotherInIsrael.com and CookingManager.com.
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