Hagar Brodutch talks to The Canadian Jewish News about being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza for 51 days

Hagar Brodutch, her children Oriya, Ofri and Yuval, and her husband Avichai on vacation in Toronto, June 3, 2024. (Credit: Lila Sarick)

When she talks about when she was a hostage, Hagar Brodutch just says ‘when we were there’—as if she and her family were visiting some far-away place, or distant cousins, a long time ago.

But, in reality, ‘when we were there’ is a family shorthand for the unimaginable—the 51 days that she, her three young children and a neighbour’s child were held starving and terrified, kidnapped from their home on Kibbutz Kfar Aza by Hamas on Oct. 7.

“I always felt safe because this is how I grew up. I always believed everything was going to be OK,” the 41-year-old mother said in an interview with The CJN. “Even when we lived in Kfar Aza, lots of people said it was a nightmare what happened on Oct. 7. But for me, it wasn’t my nightmare. I never believed that something like that could happen.

“I was very confident, but now I don’t believe in anybody, I don’t trust in anybody… I know that it will take time and that I need to recover and I need my family to recover.”

Part of the recovery involved a trip to Toronto, where her brother-in-law and his family lives. For a few weeks, the family are staying in a home in a leafy neighbourhood, where the kids are playing Minecraft with their cousins, and planning the usual tourist outings to Ripley’s Aquarium and the Toronto Islands.

Hagar, and her husband Avichai—who was injured defending the kibbutz—are also making the rounds in a series of speaking engagements before the Jewish community, thanking people for their advocacy and pleading for the release of the hostages still in Gaza.

When Hagar and the children were released on Nov. 26, Avichai joked and told her she was now the most famous woman in Israel. In Canada, where their 10-year-old daughter Ofri had gone to a Zionist summer camp with her cousin the summer before, and thousands of people had sent letters to them via the International Red Cross, it was certainly true.

“We got the letters when we came back. When we were in Gaza, we didn’t know that somebody cares about us, but when we came back, we realized that everybody cares about us.” Hagar said.

“It took us hours to open all the letters… hours of so many emotions, joy and sad,” she said.

For now, the letters are packed away in a box, along with other memories from the 51 days they were in captivity, including the T-shirts and posters that people made to keep their plight in the public eye.

Hagar threw away the clothes the children wore in Gaza once they returned to Israel, but she thinks now she should have kept them, maybe not in her house, but as part of the country’s historical record.

On the morning of Oct. 7, Avichai woke to the sound of loud explosions on the kibbutz and the terrifying sight of terrorists floating down on parachutes. He ran to the armory with his team who were trained to protect the kibbutz. The plan had been that the 15-man team would defend the kibbutz for at most 30 minutes, until reinforcements from a nearby IDF base could arrive, he said.

In reality, the surrounding bases were overrun and it would take the army hours to come. In the end, 64 people on the kibbutz were murdered and 19 were taken hostage. Avichai was injured. Four of his closest friends died defending the kibbutz, he said.

Hagar, meanwhile, was in their home’s safe room, with her children—Ofri, who had turned 10 the day before, Yuval, 8, and Oriya, 4. The family heard a faint knock on the door and Avichai opened it to find his friend’s four-year-old daughter, covered in her father’s blood.

Avigail, they learned, had been in her father’s arms when he was fatally shot. Her mother had also been killed and the child had run to her neighbours. (Her older brother and sister would survive the massacre, and were discovered 14 hours later hiding in a closet in their home.)

Avichai scooped the child up and brought her to Hagar in the safe room. She too, was kidnapped with the Brodutch family.

At first Hagar thought the terrorists who broke into her home were only intending to steal the family car, when they asked for the keys. But it quickly became apparent they intended to force them into the car and drive into Gaza, five kilometres from the kibbutz.

Once they crossed into Gaza, the terrorists held Ofri up as a prize, a young Jewish girl who had been captured, Avichai said during a speech he gave at a Toronto synagogue on June 3.  

Hagar touches lightly on the ordeal of the 51 days that they spent locked in homes in Gaza. After a few weeks, they were moved when the IDF bombed the house they were in. In the second home, they were given only one pita each a day. The children were starving and covered in lice.

Hagar spoke in whispers to keep the children calm. They told each other stories about their own family, and Avigail’s family. In a bid to distract themselves from their hunger, they made a list of the 26 restaurants around the world they dreamed of eating at.

The children desperately missed the family dog, Rodney, who had been their best friend back home and spoke about him too.

Hagar thought both the dog and her husband were dead, but did not mention it to the children.

“You just survive for them, you just care about the kids,” she recalled. “When we needed something from the terrorists, I always asked for things for the kids, I never asked for anything for me.

“Even if I smelled that they were drinking coffee, I never asked them to give me a cup of coffee as well, because I knew that it can…,” she said her sentence unfinished. “I can ask something for the kids. You just survive, you don’t have any other options.”

While they were captive, they met other Israeli hostages, none of whom have been released, she says.

When someone suggests that Hagar knows what the hostages are going through, she disagrees, her quiet voice rising for the first time in the interview.

“No, I don’t know what they’re going through. I know what I’ve been through for 51 days but now they’re there for 241 days, and I don’t know what they’re going through. It’s almost 200 more days than I’ve been there. It’s unbelievable.”

When asked if she feels survivor’s guilt, Hagar answers quietly ‘yes’.

For now, the family is healing. The two older children went back to school in March but Oriya is still too frightened to leave his mother’s side.

“They’re getting better every day, but they still have a long way to go,” Hagar said. Ofri had dreamed of returning to summer camp with her cousin, but she isn’t ready yet, her mother said.

The Brodutches have just returned from a trip with other hostage families to Disney World, that was organized by an Israeli charity. Hagar said she thought at first it might be strange to travel together, “but it was wonderful with the kids and all the parents around,” she said.

The trip included families who had been affected in different ways on Oct. 7, she said.

“Actually, it was so sad, we were one of the only families that stayed complete, the whole family there. The other families, some of them their father is still a hostage in Gaza and some of them lost their father, or their mother, or both of them, or their brothers. It’s such a big tragedy to see.”

After their release, the children had a joyful reunion with their father and their dog, who had also survived, and they moved to a home in Herzliya. The place was beautiful, but they miss the kibbutz lifestyle, surrounded by fields and their community, Hagar said.

Oriya, Yuval and Ofri Brodutch with dog
Released hostages Oriya, Yuval and Ofri Brodutch reunite with their beloved dog Rodney on Monday, Nov. 27 at the Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikvah Israel. (Submitted photo)

For now, most of Kfar Aza is uninhabitable, although the Brodutch house was not badly damaged. Many of the kibbutz members have been relocated to another nearby kibbutz while their own homes are rebuilt.

Hagar says Israel is home, but she isn’t ready to ready to return to Kfar Aza.

“Right now, I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine I will feel safe in this place,” she said.

“I really love my country. I’m an Israeli, I want to be there, but if the war will not be over, I don’t think I can live there,” she said.

In a speech at the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto synagogue on June 3, Avichai recounted his half of the story. At first he thought Hagar and the children had been killed, when she stopped answering the frantic text messages he was sending while he was exchanging gunfire with the terrorists.

A day later, when he learned they had been kidnapped, he took a chair, and accompanied by the family dog, sat in front of the Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv, demanding the government make every effort to bring his family, and the other hostages, home.

“People ask me if I want revenge. We don’t have the privilege as Jews to take revenge on anyone,” he told the audience of about 700 people.

“I’m not saying we don’t need a strong army. I’m not saying we don’t need to fight. I’m not saying we don’t need to kill our enemies before they kill us.

“It still doesn’t give us the right not to be humane and not to strive for peace for as long as we can. This is the message we need to show the world.”

Before Oct. 7. Avichai reminded the listeners, Israel was bitterly divided and embroiled in protest over the direction of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and proposed judicial reforms.

But on the day of the attack, people from the nearby religious kibbutz, Sa’ad, ran over in their bare feet on Shabbat morning to save the Jews of Kfar Aza, which he described as a left-wing kibbutz.

“We have to be united, not only at war time. It’s the easiest thing to do to unite at wartime, it’s harder to stay united,” he said.

Like his wife Hagar, he is a staunch Zionist, but can’t envision returning to Kfar Aza, where he had lived for a decade and grew pineapples, just metres from the fence separating Israel and Gaza.

He recalled a conversation with his son Yuval, who longed to return to the kibbutz.

“I respect that and I’ll do what you want to do,” Avichai told him.

Then he reminded him that the neighbour on one side, who used to come over and play video games with the family, had been killed. The neighbour on the other side, an 80-year-old woman, was also killed on Oct. 7. The Goldsteins, who lived two houses away and who were released from Gaza the same day as Hagar and the children, saw the father and oldest daughter in the family killed before their eyes.

“And I asked him, ‘can you still live there?’ And I got no answer,” Avichai said.

“I love the kibbutz, I really do,” Avichai said. “My house had a big table outside and I had a refrigerator outside full of beers and everyone used to come and take a beer and sit with me and this was almost every day. And four of my closest friends are dead. It will be hard to sit there without them,” he said.

A lot of the community is going to rebuild from the ashes, he said. “I just don’t think I can.”