Empathy and anger grip JFS staffers at session to admonish UN

By Rebecca Axelrod-Cooper and Chelsea Karp
Jewish Family Service

We were among the 700 people at the December 4 special session of the United Nations organized by the National Council of Jewish Women to call out the UN and women’s organizations for not speaking out against the horrific crimes Hamas perpetrated against women on October 7.

“I felt it so essential to bear witness to these crimes and to hear firsthand what people went through,” said U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, who invited us to the session. “I was fortunate to have a connection with Sheryl Sandberg (the event’s keynote speaker) that allowed me to extend an invitation to limited members of our Lehigh Valley community.” 

We walked to the United Nations in much the same way Jews have made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for many centuries, as part of a community. The crowd began to gather with people hugging, kissing, and smiling with familiarity. The air was filled with a sense of purpose and obligation as people collected their entry badges. 

The two-hour session began with speeches from politicians, including Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who criticized the inaction and silence of agencies around the world. The crowd jumped to their feet, with a collective feeling of frustration and outrage. 

First responders from the October 7 massacre spoke, each sharing accounts of what they witnessed and giving voice to the women who could not speak for themselves. By witnessing the trauma of women who were sexually assaulted and brutally murdered as a weapon of war, they too became victims. The lack of worldwide acknowledgment and support feels like another assault on the victims.

Simcha Greinnman, a volunteer for ZAKA, an Israeli nongovernmental rescue and recovery organization, spoke about the bodies he and his unit found. Barely able to utter the words of what he saw, he talked about the women with profound sadness. His trauma and the victims’ trauma washed over us with shocking force. 

Shari Mendes, a member of an Israeli military reserve unit tasked with identifying the bodies of fallen female soldiers and preparing them for burial, performed taharas (purifying rituals) to the best of her ability under the most unimaginable situation. It was another painful reminder that as much as we thought we knew from the news, we really had been shielded from a lot of the grueling details.

When asked whether attending the UN special session felt different than viewing the October 7 video from the Israeli Embassy shown to Congress, Wild replied, “To hear the descriptions of brave first responders and IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers, to see them struggle to get through their remarks without breaking down, and then to hear descriptions of unspeakable torture was the hardest thing I have ever done. Those images are seared in my brain forever.”

As we stood at the conclusion of the conference, the natural response was once again to hug. Not out of greeting, as we had done two hours earlier in front of the flags of the world, but out of compassion for what we had just witnessed.