On October 6, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) wished its Instagram followers chag sameach on the joyous occasion of Simchat Torah.
Less than 24 hours later, joy turned to darkness, and WJC, founded in 1936 in the ominous run-up to the Holocaust, shifted to crisis mode in response to the most catastrophic event to befall the Jewish people since the Shoah.
On October 7, Sara Friedman, WJC’s chief marketing officer, was in Tel Aviv celebrating the birth of her granddaughter. It was, she recalls, “the happiest of days.” That morning, she awoke to her buzzing phone. Moments later, Sara heard blaring sirens, followed by text after text frantically checking to see if she was ok. Concurrent with the texts, she received videos of the horror unfolding in the south.
“I Was Sure We Would All Die Together”
It was harrowing. “I was certain the Hamas terrorists would continue their rampage all the way to Tel Aviv. I wanted to rush to Ra’anana to be with my children and grandchildren.” She raced to pick up her sister Hadassah, and they sped to Ra’anana.
“Rocket after rocket was falling. We didn’t know anything, and I was sure we would all die together.” Upon arriving in Ra’anana, “everyone was ‘thinking this is it.’ Men were coming in army uniforms, and none of them knew what was happening or where they were headed.” She remembers one woman who had five sons about to go into combat.
“I don’t think I can ever describe what it was like to watch television and see the death toll rise,” she says. “When it reached 950, I thought it was the end.”
At the time, “I didn’t realize how psychologically damaging this was.” Several weeks after the attack, WJC brought a therapist to its New York headquarters, and Sara cried as she shared her story.
“Let Us Stand Together as One People”
In a shelter at Ra’anana, Sara slipped into a closet to join a WJC management call as the organization rapidly mobilized its global leadership. “This,” she says emphatically, “is why WJC was created.”
On October 15, the WJC Executive Committee, composed of international Jewish community leaders, convened in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. It was, she says, “like a big shiva. The Jewish people were suffering and needed to be with each other.”
Addressing the gathering, WJC President Ambassador Ronald Lauder declared, “In spite of everything we have seen, Israel and the Jewish people will survive. Now, let us stand together as one people, one united people. Am Yisrael Chai.”
The gathering in Zagreb was the onset of weeks of travel for Sara throughout Europe and the U.S., with the objective of building a worldwide network of pro-Israel activism.
“Bearing Witness and Setting the Record Straight”
In the initial aftermath of October 7, there was a wave of sympathy for Israel. Government buildings and monuments in numerous countries lit up in blue and white. World leaders flew to Israel to express solidarity. At all its games, the NFL held a moment of silence prior to kickoff. When it quickly dissipated, Sara was “not at all surprised. When this happened, we knew it was coming. No one thought this was going to be a new-found love for the Jewish people. We knew the second Israel took action, the world would rush to condemn it, which is exactly what happened.”
What did surprise her, however, was “the silence from women’s advocacy groups. It should have been a no-brainer for every women’s organization to issue a statement, but they couldn’t even bring themselves to say something as benign as ‘We condemn all violence against women and children.’ That was shocking.”
On November 5, Sara returned to Israel, bringing influencers and change-makers from seven countries, with the purpose, she explains, “of bearing witness and setting the record straight regarding what happened that terrible day.”
Traveling south to Kibbutz Kfar Azi, Sara felt fear and foreboding in anticipation of what she was about to see. “It was almost surreal. It didn’t seem possible that human beings could do this type of destruction. It was like the worst horror movie you could ever imagine. We met with survivors, and it was difficult to handle.”
“At The End of the Day, We’re a Family”
In the midst of the nightmare, Sara still found reason for hope. “The response from Israelis was so inspiring. This is what Israelis do. They pitched in with food, clothing and toys. They put up displaced families, or gave up their homes entirely to people left homeless. You saw the resilience immediately.”
She shares a deeply moving experience: “In the immediate aftermath of October 7, Israeli social media was flooded with the names of victims and addresses of their families. I drove to Ashdod with my partner and sister Hadassah to pay shiva calls, with sirens sounding the whole time. We encountered so many people offering not only sympathy, but also tangible items to help grieving families in their time of need. This only happens in a country like Israel, where everybody knows and feels for each other.”
As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Sara is gratified knowing “We’re in a different place now. We have our own country with a strong army, and organized world Jewry that comes together in one voice for Israel. The key is Jewish unity. When we are strong and united, we are unbreakable. That’s very scary to the haters.”
She continues: “To see the support and love the Jewish people have for Israel is amazing. People want to give a big hug to the people of Israel, because that’s the community that’s hurting. At the end of the day, we’re a family.”
(Photos: Shahar Azran)