David-Seth Kirshner
Author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness

Streams of Anxious Consciousness 49

In 1987, on a sunny autumn afternoon in Midland, Texas, 18-month-old baby Jessica McClure was playing in the backyard of her aunt’s home, which was also a make-shift day care center. Suddenly, Jessica stepped in the wrong direction and fell down a tiny hole, 8 inches wide into an uncovered well. Her leg was pinned, and she was trapped in that well for 58 excruciating hours.

CNN, the only 24-hour news network at the time, covered the story non-stop. Riggers, ditch diggers, construction workers, psychologist and emergency first responders sent materials and staff to the small, non-descript home. The newly assembled team dug a parallel hole to the well and then drilled perpendicular to reach Jessica. It sounds simpler than it was. All the while, people sang nursery rhymes to the baby and pumped oxygen down the well to keep her alive and healthy.

The entire country prayed.

2 ½ days later, around 8:30 pm eastern time, a bandaged and dirty baby Jessica came up a mechanized pulley in the arms of Robert O’Donnell, the paramedic who treated and rescued her below the earth’s surface.

It was a moment of God hearing the harmony of interfaith prayers. A modern-day miracle. She was alive and she would survive. I remember my mother crying watching the news, which was not novel. My mom cried all the time. But my dad choked back tears too. He was usually stoic. Seeing his emotions was extraordinary.

Moms and dads, sisters and brothers, grandparents and neighbors worldwide shed a shared tears that night, like our family did, as Jessica emerged into the bright spotlights.

Getty Images

The subsequent drama that surrounded Jessica’s parents was more than the young couple could handle. Shortly after the incident, they filed for divorce. Robert O’Donnell, the EMT who cared for baby Jessica was troubled by the notoriety that came with his recognition. O’Donnell died by suicide a few days after the Oklahoma City bombing. He said to his mother watching the first responders, that those people are going to need years of emotional support following this tragedy.

Psychologists diagnosed O’Donnell with post-traumatic stress from the rescue. Jessica’s parents, eternally grateful for the world’s support and the actions of workers and first responders, are still wounded by those 58 hours, even 35 years later. Jessica was far too young to have lasting emotional suffering from the ordeal. She has a scar, a lasting reminder that extends from her hairline up to her nose. Jessica’s family and rescuers were not able to evade the associated trauma and emotional wounds. Remember, baby Jessica had a good ending.

Yesterday, 13 Israeli women and children, ranging from 3 years young to 85 years old came out from their well. They were forced into that well. It was no accident. They were held there without nursery rhymes or songs and with tremendous apathy from onlookers, many who blamed them and their country for their plight. Some who even ripped down pictures, denying their darkness and captivity.

Upon their release, I was hoping for a baby Jessica response. I thought I would well up with tears, excitement and joy watching these long-awaited embraces. I thought my body would shake seeing these women and children back in Israel. I was sure that this reunion would have made me feel closer to God and full of thanksgiving on the appropriate weekend.

I did not have any of those emotions. I was numb. I am anesthetized from 49 days of trauma and emotionless from the drop in the bucket of those released versus those still held in captivity.

The Jewish world waited filled with tension, anxiety and fear yesterday. News trickled in and names of the released surfaced. Their freedom reminded me that 13 are home and 237 are still unaccounted for. Meanwhile, as we were biting fingernails and pacing, candy and gunfire were erupting in the West Bank as terrorists, three times as many, were released from Israeli prisons and their heinous convictions were expunged. It all felt so wickedly unfair and unjust.

My mind was heavy with projected thoughts of EMT O’Donnell and the McClure family. The emotional stress and trauma the 13 captives have endured, and their surviving families have suffered for 49 days is unthinkable. The hardest parts of rehabilitation are in front of them.

My heart was equally heavy thinking about the individual and communal toll this ordeal will have on nurses, doctors, soldiers, elected officials and negotiators, people driving the bus from Egypt to Israel, and countless others involved in bringing these captive Israelis back home. Each person addressing their physical and emotional health will have much on their plates. The imprisonment might be over for a few. The trauma is only beginning. That has me waking at night in a cold-sweated panic.

Trying to mitigate the trauma, Israel spent painstaking hours planning each moment of how best to greet these innocent Israeli civilians being released from Hamas captivity and to welcome them back to society. How would those tasked with gathering the hostages answer questions about their loved ones? Would the soldiers hold guns, even though they are in an active war zone? Can these liberated children feel hopeful, happy and loved coming from such a dark and scary place? What can they eat? Who can touch them? What will trigger their fears? Will they be malnourished? Physically sick? When is considered enough time for the Mossad and Shin Bet to interrogate the hostages to gather more data?

There are no chapters written about a scenario like the one unfolding now in any psycho-trauma books. You will not find a DSM that points to hostages being taken from their homes while asleep in pajamas, witnessing the murder of children and parents, and then being held for 49 days in dark, damp tunnels in enemy territory. Steven King novels do not address this kind of fright and horror. Even the most deviant minds could not anticipate such a situation. There are no examples of how to handle this scenario. Israel will have to write the chapter, again.

Hostages have been reunited with family and society before. John McCain, for example, was a prisoner of war. He knew as a Navy pilot that being shot down and enemy capture was a possibility. He was an adult when captive and then released.

But these are blameless and harmless children. Some are still in diapers and cannot count past ten. How could they know how to handle themselves in such harrowing conditions? Could any of us?!

Watching Israeli news today, I saw one man whose daughter is being held by Hamas in Gaza and has yet to be released. He was being interviewed about his feelings by a local broadcaster. The father explained to the interviewer the myriad of emotions he was experiencing. He said that he was very happy for these families whose loved ones were coming home, even though his family was not going to be reunited just yet with their girl. He was filled with tension, worry, excitement, concern and trepidation. He then said a line that released the tear valves.

“We are all Israelis. We are one family,” he said. “When one person comes home, it makes our family a little more whole. For that, I am forever hopeful and appreciative. We just need to keep bringing them all home, as quickly and safely as possible, and complete that feeling. We can make our family and country whole again.”

The baby Jessica moment I wanted of seeing people reunited did not feel as good as I hoped. Yet, hearing the resolve and watching the determination of the Israeli people, especially this father, was the medicine my aching heart needed. It was the balm to soothe my hurt.

The word Shalom (peace) comes from the Hebrew root, Shin, Lamed, Mem, which means complete or full. The Shalom in our world was shattered on October 7th. Today was another small step towards bonding those broken pieces back together again and making families and our country whole, while knowing we will forever be broken.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC and an adjunct faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, (AJR). He is the author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness, featured in The NY Times Book Review (Feb '24) and has over 11,000 copies in circulation in its first three months since publication. He has spoken on his book and topics connected to Judaism and Zionism across the world.