Counting the Difficult Days Until Passover with Rachel Goldberg-Polin

Rachel Goldberg-Polin poses for a portrait on day 98 since her son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin was kidnapped by Hamas, in Jerusalem, on Jan. 12, 2024.

Within just weeks of Oct. 7, much of the world shifted from being consumed by recent events in Israel to what Israel was doing. This caused a vast division between two camps: those still primarily distressed by the largest loss of Jewish lives since Holocaust, and those more focused on Israeli military actions that have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths across Gaza Strip.

There is no one person who can mend this gap. But Rachel Goldberg-Polin has proven herself a capable communicator.

“People seem to struggle to hold two realities,” says Goldberg-Polin, whose son Hersh was badly injured on Oct. 7, then forcefully taken as a hostage by the opposition and detained in Gaza. “People feel forced to either sympathize with the innocent civilians in Gaza or to worry about the 133 hostages. The truth is, some of the hostages are also among the innocent civilians of Gaza. Of the thousands and thousands and thousands of innocent civilians in Gaza, I know one of them. Really well.”

On 2024’s list of the world’s most influential people, Goldberg-Polin represents families tirelessly advocating for the release of their loved ones—the only human beings who have endured the wrath of both sides in the Gaza War. Within Israel, the families hold a special place. Abroad, Goldberg seems to function as their spokesperson, a dual citizen of Israel and America, having lived in Chicago and observing kosher food laws. She keeps a busy schedule and is known for her gift of using metaphors.

“It feels like it is still October 8” in Israel, she says. “Our lives are frozen. I cannot comprehend that Passover is next week. And it’s honestly almost cruel to even dwell on the holiday of freedom from captivity. Earlier today, I said, and I was not joking, ‘Is there a doctor who could put me in an induced coma for the week?’ Because I don’t want to be conscious. It will be too agonizing.”

When questioned “How are you?” she replies, “I’m doing terrible.” We spoke on April 16 video call from Jerusalem, where she and her husband, Jonathan, have lived since 2008. She wears a white T-shirt with the number 193 written on a piece of masking tape—indicating the number of days Hersh and the other hostages have been in captivity. Since she started wearing it, on day 26, hundreds of thousands of people have done the same, updating the tape every day. “You know, when you wear the same thing, people can get used to it,” she says. “This makes people very uncomfortable. It’s a constant reminder, staring you in the face, that for 193 days you’ve allowed 133 human beings from 25 different countries; who are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu; who range in age 86 years—you’ve allowed them to stay underground suffering.”

“But,” she adds, “in many ways, it’s a ‘Hello, My name is..’ because this is my identity. It is absolutely my identity.”

Her words carry a heavy weight, and her energy reflects that. Goldberg-Polin is known for her lively and sometimes bemused demeanor. Some of this is simply a reflection of her personality. And some of it may stem from the constant dissonance of her existence since her last glimpse of her son, on a cell phone video, a tourniquet on his left arm, which had been severed below the elbow.

“I carry a heavy burden with me at all times, and I have to pretend to be normal,” she says. “Every morning I wake up and I put on this facade that is fairly convincing, so that I can talk to important people.” She met with the Pope, visited the White House, and addressed the United Nations. “What I want to do when I wake up is lie on the floor curled up in the fetal position weeping, but it’s not going to help save him and it’s not going to help save them. So I have to put on this ridiculous costume and pretend to be strong. And I have to navigate this endless nightmare. It’s not a nightmare. It’s not a daymare. It’s an every-single-second-mare.”

In six months, she has grown intimately familiar with her torment. Goldberg-Polin notes that everyone experiences trauma. “Maybe the sudden death of a loved one, or maybe someone coming home one day and saying, ‘Honey, I want a divorce.’” Whatever it is, it hits you like a truck, and leaves you devastated.

“But the thing is,” she says, “at a certain point you decide, when am I going to try to sit up? When am I going to try to stand and take my first step incorporating this new reality that is part of my life? The problem with what we hostage families are experiencing is, the truck is still on our chest. And so what we’re trying to do is not move in such a way that our rib cage collapses and the truck crushes us to death. And so we’re in a very different place.”

At the moment, all eyes are on Israel’s conflict with Iran. Goldberg’s husband, Jon, has suggested that, rather than retaliate against Iran for its attacks, Israel use this situation as leverage to secure the release of the hostages. Goldberg-Polin—who on Oct. 10, after not sleeping for three days, was prescribed sleep aids that she describes as “horse pills”—slept through the sirens that announced the incoming missiles and drones from Iran. One of Hersh’s sisters had to guide her into the safe room. “And we heard two massive explosions. They seemed to be very close, but I think they were actually hundreds of kilometers away. But you hear these booms and I didn’t feel scared at all, because you know what? I’ve been so scared at all times for the past 193 days. I’ve been living in a constant state of fear. I thought to myself, fine, you want to kill me? Kill me.

“But then I felt guilty because when Hersh comes home, he’s going to need his mother.”