Voices from the field
Recalling Oct. 18, 2011 in Jerusalem
Every generation experiences a number of defining moments that become embedded in the collective memory of every person touched. For Israelis and connected Jews around the world, the most recent of these events was the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who had been held under Hamas captivity in Gaza for five years. Shalit was released on October 18, 2011, and I was lucky enough to be living in Jerusalem at the time.
I remember on the evening of October 11 one of my roommates came in to the kitchen where I was sitting and excitedly asked me if I had heard the news about Gilad (his situation had become so well known that many referred to him just by his first name). I did not expect that anything really could have changed since I had last checked. As far as I was aware, he was still being held captive indefinitely by Hamas. Nevertheless, I turned on the TV to find that every news station was broadcasting images of Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, talking to the media, surrounded by an unusually large crowd of people. Before I heard what he was saying, I read the caption: “Gilad Shalit to be freed in Prisoner exchange.” I could hardly believe what I was reading and felt my eyes began to tear up - after more than five years in captivity Gilad was to be freed!
The reaction of the country upon hearing the news was something that I’ll never forget. As I walked through the streets of Jerusalem I saw people spontaneously gathered at the Gilad Shalit protest tent near the Prime Minister’s residence. They proceeded to dance and sing songs of peace, hope, and unity. Cars driving through the city centers were beeping their horns in celebration. It was a type of blissful joy not often felt across the entirety of Israel. After the initial elation had worn off, the country held its collective breath waiting, anxiously, for the final confirmation that Gilad had really made it home. Many were skeptical that it would actually happen. The energy in town felt familiarly tense but also infused with a refreshing sense of hope.
Finally, one week later (though it felt like an eternity), with the entire country gathered around their radios and televisions, word came that Gilad had made it safely back into Israel. Across the country signs sprung up wishing Shalit a welcome home, saying “kama tov sh’batah Habayta,” meaning, “How good it is that you made it home.” The five year saga had come to a close for the country, and the next challenge in Gilad’s life had begun: the readjustment to his new freedom back at home in Israel.