While attending a local theater production Oct. 7, Evansville resident Mark Vyvoda received an alarming message on his family’s group chat that shook him to his foundation.
In the WhatsApp thread, Vyvoda’s cousin, Sharone Lifschitz, described a horrific attack in Israel in which Lifschitz’s parents, aged 85 and 83, had been kidnapped.
The couple, who Lifschitz describes as “peace activists and art lovers,” was taken from their burned house in Nir Oz, a small kibbutz near the Gaza border, where Lifschitz had grown up.
There was widespread injury and death, Lifschitz said in the message.
“The terrorists arrived at nine AM and went from house to house,” the communication reads. “… They killed, kidnapped people to Gaza, and set the houses on fire … It’s incomprehensible; they kidnapped children, women, and the elderly who could barely walk.”
The devastation isn’t limited to Nir Oz. In Gaza and southern Israel, and even northern cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, rockets rained from the sky and Hamas fighters went door to door, destroying villages, pulling people from their homes, and killing some while taking others away.
The U.S. designated Hamas a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. According to PBS News, Hamas published its charter in 1988 and called for the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic society in historic Palestine. The Islamist militant movement is one of the Palestinian territories’ two major political parties and governs more than two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but it is perhaps most known for its armed resistance to Israel.
Israel has declared war on the group and launched an aerial assault on Gaza in response to the recent attack. CNN reports at least 1,200 people have died in Hamas’ attack on Israel, and at least 1,000 have been killed in Israel’s subsequent bombing of Gaza.
Mark Vyvoda and his wife, Tory Schendel-Vyvoda, were sitting in the audience at an Evansville Civic Theatre performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” when the message came from Lifschitz, who lives in the United Kingdom.
“We just broke down,” Tory says.
The family still knows little of the whereabouts and status of Mark’s relatives. The couple’s health only adds to the concern: Mark’s great uncle has lung disease, and his great aunt requires continuous oxygen.
“Since Saturday, we have lost contact with them,” Tory says. “They need their medications, and we are worried for their safety.”
Dozens of people are missing from the torched kibbutz of Nir Oz. Mark’s great aunt and uncle have lived their whole life on the settlement.
Mark Vyvoda, who is CEO at MAC Industrial Services in Evansville, and Tory, who is curator at the Evansville African American Museum, are directing attention to a fundraising effort that has been created on behalf of the survivors in Nir Oz.
Tory says her husband, who spent summers in Israel growing up, “is just numb” as he processes what has happened to his relatives there.
Lifschitz, in interviews with world media this week, said the family hangs onto hope for the safety of her parents. She asked for support from people not directly impacted by the attack on Israel.
“We have to remember that these are human beings,” Lifschitz told the BBC. “This is my mother. She could also be your mother, and I don’t wish this on anyone … They always think it’s something that happens to others, and today, I’m in the news. I hope they will return in peace.”
Rabbi Gary Mazo of Evansville’s Temple Adath B’Nai Israel says he first learned of the attack from news reports just prior to Saturday’s worship services.
It fell to Mazo to break the news to his congregation.
“We opened with prayer for Israel,” he says. “It was hard to believe this occurred in the first place, and when the details started to emerge of what they did … it’s horrifying, and then to find there were personal connections in the congregation.”
Such connections are hardly unusual, Mazo adds. “I’ve got friends and colleagues whose kids were called into military service, who had people killed.”
Mazo spoke of the magnitude of the event.
“This was the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. It’s just awful,” he says. “The messaging from our community is, we need to come together in prayer and to raise funds. There’s a concerted effort in the American Jewish community to do that.”
“We need to check on friends we have,” Mazo says. “And the message to non-Jews is, your Jewish friends are not OK. Offer support, offer comfort. That’s a lot of the messaging that’s been put out over the last few days. Israel is not at war with the Palestinian people. Israel is at war with Hamas … a world-recognized terrorist organization. That’s an important difference.”