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An Empty Seat

Congregation ‘adopts’ hostage taken from kibbutz

Nadav Popplewell is a 51-year-old computer specialist. He loves literature and has a collection of hundreds of books, most of them science fiction. He likes playing bridge and spending time with his nephews.
    He is from Nirim, a kibbutz in the northwestern Negev in Israel, near the border with the Gaza Strip. So why does he have a seat in the sanctuary of Temple Beth El of Somerset?
    A peaceful farm, Kibbutz Nirim was established in 1946 by “Nir,” a small group of young pioneers. It grew to about 500 people, including around 130 children, with fields of varied crops, an avocado plantation, greenhouses and dairy cows.
    But in the early hours of Oct. 7, a group of about 20 terrorists shattered that peace. Armed with assault rifles, grenades and rocket-propelled grenades they arrived at Kibbutz Nirim, setting houses ablaze, opening fire on homes, and hurling grenades.
    Early in the attack, a group of three Israeli Defense Forces soldiers led by Colonel Asaf Hamami entered the kibbutz and battled the Hamas fighters. Hamas killed all three, and took their bodies back to the Gaza Strip. Corporal Amit Levy, a police officer who was on leave at the time, heard the gunfire and joined some members of the kibbutz’s standby squad, fighting with his M16 rifle. Additional forces arrived on motorcycles and in vans. With the assistance of an IDF attack helicopter, the fighting raged for seven hours, when IDF forces arrived and cleared out the terrorists.
    Five kibbutz civilians were killed, many were injured and a number were kidnapped and taken hostage. Nadav and his mother, Channah Peri, were among the hostages. Nadav’s older brother, Roi, was among the dead.
    In response to what happened on that day, the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism, the organization that supports Conservative Jewish schools and temples in Israel, created the Adopt a Hostage Program, asking congregations to reserve an empty seat in the sanctuary for a hostage and to pray for their safe return. Temple Beth El was matched with Nadav, and a seat in the front is reserved for him, with a tallis and a siddur ready for his return.
    At the temple’s gala Hanukkah menorah lighting, close to 50 people brought their menorahs from home and lit them together. One remained empty and unlit; that was Nadav’s.
    “I think about our hostage, Nadav Popplewell, every day,” said Rabbi Eli Garfinkel, spiritual leader of Beth El. “His picture sits right in front of our reading table, so I am frequently reminded of the hell that he and his family must be going through. It is important for us to have pictures of these hostages so that they become human for us rather than just a news headline. And that is what I want their captors to remember—they are holding human beings who have done nothing to deserve such torture.
    After 53 days of captivity, Nadav’s mother was set free, along with many other women and children, but about 150 kidnapped people still remain as hostages, including Nadav.
    His mother was taken to a hospital for observation and has been reunited with her daughter Ayelet, who lives on a kibbutz in northern Israel. Nirim members who survived the attack were evacuated by the IDF from the kibbutz, and most of them currently reside temporarily in a hotel in Eilat.
    Nadav’s picture still sits in the front row of the sanctuary; the tallis and siddur still wait.  

Phyllis Miller is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.


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