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Jerusalem: Rachel Goldberg-Polin has a piece of tape attached to her shirt with the number of days her son Hersh was held hostage in Gaza handwritten on it.
It’s “a symbol of my pain,” Goldberg-Polin, 54, told AFP in her office in Jerusalem, where an Israeli flag flies next to a banner with a portrait of her 23-year-old son that reads “Bring Hersh home.” .”
The US-born mother fought back tears as she denounced the “shame on the human race that we have not been able to save” the 121 hostages held since October 7 by militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The figure includes several foreigners or dual citizens, such as Israeli-American Hersh Goldberg-Polin, and 37 prisoners the military says are dead.
Since the October attack, the soft-spoken mother, a former mental health professional who “worked out six days a week,” said she hasn’t exercised, listened to music or eaten sugar.
“It’s a different life,” she told AFP.
She has endured anxiety, uncertainty and “indescribable” pain for nearly eight months as the family waits for Hersh’s return.
After a one-week ceasefire in November, 105 hostages were freed. Hersh, like most other Israelis capable of combat, was not among them.
Relatives of the hostages have stepped up pressure on the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for immediate action to secure their release.
But “wanting and doing are two very different things,” Goldberg-Polin said of the expressed political will to bring them back.
A dual Israeli-American citizen, she moved to Jerusalem in 2008 and lives there with her husband, Jon. They have three children, including Hersh.
Goldberg-Polin said she converted to her Jewish faith during this period.
“When I pray every day… it’s a form of meditation and it’s a form of therapy.”
She said that when she prays for Hersh, she repeats the same mantra: “I love you, stay strong, survive.”
Her younger daughters, 18 and 20, were also a source of comfort.
“They often have to act motherly to me, which is bad for me because it’s my job to be motherly to them,” said the mother.
In late April, Hamas released a video showing her son — a sign he may still be alive — and it was the first time the family had seen Hersh since Oct. 6.
It was Friday night, and after Goldberg-Polin went to synagogue and had dinner with friends, Hersh left.
When he recently returned from a long trip to Europe, he decided to go camping, his mother said.
Unbeknownst to her, Hersh and a friend had gone to a music festival near the Gaza border.
As an observant Jew, Rachel usually avoids using technology on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest.
But early on the morning of October 7, she looked at her phone. Her son’s message read, “I love you,” followed by another, “I’m sorry.”
The family initially thought Hersh was dead before learning of his abduction from a rave in the town of Nova, where more than 360 people were killed by Gaza militants.
Hersh’s left forearm was torn off during the attack, while his friend Aner Shapira was killed.
The militants threw grenades at them, and Shapira “kept picking them up and throwing them out” until one of them killed him, Goldberg-Polin said.
Rachel Goldberg-Polin’s relentless efforts to push for her son’s release have made her a household name in Israel and beyond.
She met with Pope Francis and last week with U.S. President Joe Biden, who was “very emotional,” Goldberg-Polin noted.
In April, the American magazine Time ranked her among the 100 most influential people in 2024.
“It was immediately clear that I didn’t belong on that list,” she said, but being on it helped draw attention to “this global humanitarian crisis.”
The October 7 Hamas attack in which Hersh was kidnapped killed 1,189 people, mostly civilians, according to AFP, based on official Israeli figures, and sparked the current war.
Israel’s retaliatory operation in Gaza, which officials say is aimed at rescuing hostages and destroying Hamas, has killed at least 36,224 people, including mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.
Goldberg-Polin said she was also “deeply concerned” for “innocent civilians” in Gaza “from the very beginning.”
“I don’t think it’s a pain contest,” she said.
Now, people she meets and recognizes her “start to cry” because they already know her story, Goldberg-Polin said.
“I pray for the day when people see me and smile.”

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