Aharon Brodutch finally hugged his sister-in-law, niece and nephews this week after the family, held hostage in Gaza since Oct. 7, were released on Sunday, Nov. 26, after 51 days of captivity.
Brodutch, a quantum-physicist who now lives in Toronto, has been organizing, advocating, and representing his family for two months since the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7. Aharon’s brother Avichai, was wounded in the attack on Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel. Avichai’s wife, Hagar, and their three children, Ofri, 10, Yuval, 8, and Oria, 4, were kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza. They were released Nov. 26 as part of the temporary truce agreement.
Brodutch confirmed that the four family members were together while they were held captive in Gaza, though he could not comment further for security reasons.
In an interview from Israel with The CJN, Brodutch said that when he finally saw his sister-in-law, niece, and nephews, he didn’t need to say anything right away.
“It was so emotional and I just hugged them. It was just so, so good to see [them],” says Brodutch, adding that they had lost a lot of weight.
“The first moment just seeing them was hard. But they were functioning, they were talking, they could tell us about their experience that day and they could tell them about the experiences before.
“We were very worried that they might be in shock or behaving strangely. They weren’t. Obviously, their situation, they didn’t look right and they’re traumatized but they’re functioning.
“I think it is as good as we could have hoped.”
Brodutch said his brother’s family are not physically harmed, and will be released from hospital “as soon as they want to,” pointing out the safety of their current environment at the Schneider Centre Children’s Hospital in Petah Tikvah, including socially and psychologically.
Brodutch went through a roller-coaster of emotions as he and his brother Avichai heard about the hostage release deal.
“On the day they released the first batch [Nov. 24], the press was very quick and so we heard they’re calling all the families to tell them what’s happening. What they did was they called everyone, to tell you if you are on the list or if you’re not.
“My brother received the phone call … the person on the other end had to deliver, you know, not good news. I don’t want to say bad news because, you know, there was still hope for the next days. The same thing happened on the second day.
“I think on the first day we were kind of shocked, everyone was expecting their name to be called up. Although obviously only less than a quarter of the people with children were going to have their names announced.
“Then the third day, there was a delay and there were issues, but then at 2 a.m. my brother got the phone call, and even before the person on the other hand started talking, he knew. He had been [in contact with a liaison] for a long time, and he could just go by the tone of her voice immediately. He knew.
“That day was extremely exciting. We went together to Kfar Aza to his house, or his old house, to get stuff, so that the kids have their pyjamas and things like that.”
Avichai’s family now has to make choices about where to live in Israel, including whether to return to their house, which weathered “a few bullet holes from the Israeli soldiers who came in to sort of clear the house” but is otherwise intact, Aharon Brodutch said.
The Hamas attackers took jewelry from an open safe in Avichai’s house, he added, though overall pocketed few valuables.
For now, the family find themselves internally displaced in Israel, though as kibbutz residents they are technically allowed return to their home. Alternately, they could stay with family or accept temporary accommodations paid for by the government.
“If they decide to go back to the kibbutz, that’s going to be a very long process because right now it’s destroyed,” says Aharon Brodutch.
For the first day or so after Oct. 7, the family – Avichai and his parents in Israel, and Aharon and his wife Shira in Toronto—believed Avichai’s wife and children had been murdered in the attack on the kibbutz, which left their neighbours dead and several houses burned down.
They learned a day later that someone had seen the family being taken hostage. Aharon, Avichai and the family have been working non-stop since then to bring awareness and urgency to the cause, visiting Ottawa for a press conference and a meeting with politicians along with a delegation of hostage families. They also travelled to Washington, D.C. to meet with a Qatari ambassador.
Brodutch says even though his family is back safely in Israel, he will continue advocating for the release of all of the hostages.
“You know, it’s become less personal but… even on the day we received the phone call, you can’t be completely happy.
“You always know that if it’s your family [being released] it’s other people who are not getting that phone call or getting the opposite phone call that day.
“There are people who know that their family is not going to be released—the men, the soldiers. We have to continue fighting. They’re not in an amusement park, it’s not a hotel there, it is very tough. We have to get them out of there as soon as possible.”
Aharon Brodutch travelled from Toronto to Israel on Nov. 19 and chose a Nov. 29 return without knowing if Avichai’s family would be released during that period. While he was in Israel, he continued to participate in the family’s advocacy work for the hostages, including meeting with “many of the top rabbis.”
“When I got [to Israel in November] there wasn’t a deal. There was nothing. We were brainstorming about when are we going to escalate the demonstrations and the protests we’re doing?”
A day later the family heard a rumour that “something is happening and we should hold off.”
With the family’s release Nov. 26, Brodutch didn’t need to change his return ticket.
His niece, Ofri, who turned 10 the day after her capture, spent time in Canada this past summer, attending Camp Gesher in Ontario and visiting Toronto Islands with her cousins.
“One of the first things I asked [Ofri] is, ‘what do you want to do now? She said ‘I want to go to Toronto,’” Brodutch says.
When asked if Ofri will return to Camp Gesher, Brodutch said she is planning to go.
The Camp Gesher community’s outpouring support for Ofri and her family included letter writing campaigns to the International Red Cross and creating an online message board with notes to the family.
Shoshana Lipschultz, the camp director, was at the Soloway JCC in Ottawa on Nov. 26, when the news broke about the Brodutch family’s release.
“There happened to be a couple other camps in the room, and as the news kind of started to trickle out, the camp directors from (B’nai Brith Camp), Ottawa, and (Camp) Shomria that were also in the room ran over and were hugging me, because it wasn’t just us waiting for this. There were some very deep connections for all of the Ontario Jewish summer camps and even all of the Ontario camps where it became really personal.”
Lipschultz says she’s been in contact with Shira Brodutch, Ofri’s aunt in Toronto, who confirmed that Ofri and the family are starting to see the messages of support and learn about the advocacy work done on their behalf.
That sense of togetherness is something Aharon Brodutch has felt in Israel, and in Toronto. Not only have the families of the hostages bonded as a group, he affirms, the connection is a larger one.
“We’re all feeling in Israel like one big family. And when I went back to Toronto… we’re just, I think one big Jewish family. It’s not just the families of [hostages]… everyone is feeling it.”