NYC exhibit reminds that 'it could have been any of us' at the Nova fest

By Lauren Rabin
Special to Hakol 

On May 14, 2024, I visited the Nova Music Festival exhibit “Oct. 7, 06:29 a.m. The Moment Music Stood Still” in New York City with five of my local Jewish friends. Since October 7, 2023, many of us have been unable to comprehend the horrors our Jewish brothers and sisters experienced at the music festival in Israel at the hands of Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. What was meant to be a rave of peace, coexistence, and love turned into the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust. 

At sunrise, terrorists rained over the festival by parachute, violently taking the lives of 370 people while kidnapping 40 into Gaza (in total approximately 1,200 people were killed in Israel that day and 240 were taken hostage). It has been difficult for me to make sense of the horrors, until I visited the Nova exhibit, where the October 7 massacre became very real. 

The exhibit, notably produced by media mogul Scooter Braun, among others, is meant to be an in-depth remembrance of the attack, which coincided with the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah (the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings, accompanied by song and dance). In a recent interview, Braun said he did not want the exhibit to be a “political” statement, since “no kid dancing deserves to die.” He wanted people to realize that it could have been “any of us.” The exhibit, whose run in Lower Manhattan was extended through June 16, proved to be an apolitical documentation of what occurred on October 7 at the festival. 

As we stood in line to enter the exhibit, we recognized a familiar face. One of the survivors of the festival was standing ahead of us. The reality of what we were about to witness started sinking in fast. The exhibit began in a small room with a large screen showing footage of people from all over the world singing and dancing. We were engulfed by joy and excitement through colorful descriptions of the festival prior to 6:29 a.m. on October 7.

The movie was then cut short, and we were guided into a larger room, feeling apprehensive. Tents, clothing, recorded testimonials, phone calls, and photos overwhelmed us as we made our way inside the first part of the main exhibit. The smell of gunpowder and incense filled the air while fear squeezed my chest. We had quickly moved from celebration to chaos. 

In the early hours of the morning of October 7, partygoers were told to run and hide, as alarms wailed, rockets fired, and armed paragliders filled the ombre tangerine sky. As I walked the rubble-lined floors of the exhibit, live videos on small televisions and cell phones interrupted my path. Is this what it was like as people ran, concert staff and attendees in every direction, desperately trying to escape? Which video do I watch first? Which way am I supposed to walk?  Phone calls from victims to their family members saying goodbye echoed in my head as I tried to block out the transcripts of terrorists bragging of their killings to their parents. Images of young, beautiful people hiding in bushes 3 feet tall were seared in my brain. There was no path forward, only right and left. I had lost my five friends. 

I then ventured, alone, into a small room where I listened to an employee of Zaka (an organization recognized by the U.N. that helps with rescue and recovery globally and throughout Israel) recount details of the casualties, too gruesome to share here, as the smell of the gunpowder increased and made me dizzy. To be completely transparent, I thought it was over. I expected to turn the corner and be reacquainted with my friends to process what we had seen and heard. As I continued to walk, an extremely large room swallowed me whole with even more items from the festival and testimonies of the attack. I was numb and queasy anticipating more. 

The large room was daunting. It was emotional but I didn’t cry. I was numb. Many burnt cars blocked my path. Circling the room were small television screens playing testimonials of innocent victims’ experiences during the attack. I wanted to learn more but crumbled at every account. The videos told stories of strangers helping and caring for one another and comforting those who couldn’t hold on. Portable bathrooms with bullet holes lined one wall of the exhibit. I had recently watched a screening of “Supernova: The Music Festival Massacre” and listened to two women share their harrowing experience of hiding in a portable bathroom with another young gentleman for nine hours as they heard terrorists murdering their friends outside. Eventually they were rescued and remain the few who survived on-site. Their hiding place sat in front of me. It was small. It still smelled. They must have been terrified. 

The large room was filled with shoes, art, and clothing that were left behind at the festival when the attacks began. Birkenstocks, Nikes, and Converse were recognizable and personal. Personal because my friends and family own similar styles. This could have been any of us. 

In the center of the large room was an installation of the Nova festival dance floor.  Surrounding the installation were curtains with illuminated wings flying upward.  How can something so beautiful sit in the center of something so horrifying? Numb, I continued to walk past more burnt cars, the portable bathrooms, and a makeshift bar and DJ stand where broken coolers were strewn on the ground. I listened to a story of a mother who crawled into a cooler to avoid gunshots. Those around her were murdered as she hid, cold and claustrophobic, until help arrived. I couldn’t watch any more videos, but I was compelled to finish. I wanted to honor every single victim and survivor. 

I sucked on a mint to settle my stomach as I walked through the final room, which perfectly displayed photos of all the 370 innocent victims. A table sat adjacent with the opportunity to leave a note. I wished each victim and their families peace. I prayed for them. This could have been my family. My children. They were beautiful. At a rave to celebrate love, art, music, community, hope, friends, family, and life. Their lives violently cut short by hate. 

I was reunited with one friend before we exited the exhibit. Hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and bracelets were for sale with 100% of the proceeds going toward the survivors and their families. We bought some things. That didn’t seem like enough. We then met our friends outside and promised one another to share this experience so it is never forgotten. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I was always taught that the one thing no one can ever take away from you is knowledge. We will continue to share the events of October 7 to honor every victim and survivor and to prevent it from occurring again. I will never forget. Never again means now.