The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Thursday, May 30, 2024
The Jewish Observer

October 7 Survivors’ Visit to Vanderbilt Helps Heal in the Wake of Student Protests

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Nova music festival survivors, pictured l. to r.: Shye Weinstein, Hadar Or Elmakias, and Dor Kapah visited Vanderbilt University to tell their stories.

“I remember we saw something in the skies and thinking this was no ordinary attack, however I couldn’t imagine what would unfold.” Hadar Or Elmakias, 27, survivor of the Nova music festival 

 

“I went outside and saw a lot of chaos, and I again looked at the sky and said to myself, ‘Father, I don’t know how, I don’t know why, and I don’t know when, I have to come back home.” Dor Kapah, 31, survivor of the Nova music festival.  

 

“Last year in 2023 I went to Israel on a vacation, and I didn’t come home. I decided to stay and make Aliyah.” Shye Weinstein 27, survivor of the Nova music festival 

Students, faculty, and visitors huddled inside a large tent on a chilly spring evening at Vanderbilt University to listen to three survivors of the Nova music festival tell their stories and answer questions. One by one, Hadar Or Elmakias, 27, Dor Kapah, 31, and Shye Weinstein, 27, stood before the crowd describing scenes of horror, pain, and death, and their journeys to escape the attack.  

Elmakias, a marathon runner, attempted to flee on foot along with several of her friends. “We ran almost four kilometers, but not in one direction or a straight line because we heard gunshots and screaming. There were terrorists all around.” Elmakias saw someone running next to her fall to the ground, “I saw that he died,” she said. Soon after, she felt a hot sting in her right knee. Realizing she, too, had been shot, her friend wrapped hastily wrapped a shirt around her leg, and they continued running.  

Eventually, Elmakias was alone, running for cover in the desert, amidst bodies. After several hours, she was able to find someone with a car and made her way to a nearby kibbutz where she was able to receive some medical attention before being moved to a city hospital. “I believe that hashem played a role in my survival,” she said. 

Kapah also describes the scene of hundreds of missiles overhead, and the creeping feeling that it was time to leave. He encouraged his friends, his brother, and others to quickly pack their things and leave while he went to get their car. After nearly two hours of trying to leave the jammed parking lot and hoping for help from local police, the group saw terrorists break into the festival entrance. “We saw people just falling on the ground, so we jumped in the car, I started the engine, and we started to drive between people inside the party area,” he says.  

As the car made its way toward the exit, Kapah eventually found a small opening in the fence. He gathered up another friend into the car. “I saw a group, between 50 and 100 terrorists so I made a huge u-turn in the parking lot again.”  Still more people crammed into the jeep, and the group continued its escape.  

 

During one brief stop, Kapah says Hamas terrorists approached the group on motorcycles, aiming their guns and yelling, “Kill the Jewish, kill the Jewish.” Kapah continued to evade the terrorists on motorcycles. Eventually one of the terrorists caught up with Kapah’s car and shot into the car. “I drove fast and the first motorcycle came from the right side of the car and the bullet found the head of my friend, Gilad.”  

 

In a hail of bullets and missiles Kapah drove wildly until he made his way to safety in a small bathroom by the side of the road. Israeli soldiers, on their way to the Nova grounds, found them a short time later and Kapah stepped outside calling, “I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish.” The soldiers added another wounded person to their group, and they drove to a police checkpoint to deliver them to safety.   

Weinstein told of his first music festival experience. The excitement, the energy, the fun. “I’m meeting people the whole night.” Towards sunrise, like everyone else, he heard the missiles in the sky. His group began to gather their things and get ready to leave by car. His cousin, high on acid, took the wheel of the car and drove his group away from the festival. “We’re navigating and we’re telling him, ‘there’s checkpoints here, bodies here, turn here, turn there, slow down.’” They passed cars on the shoulder of the road, one filled with Hamas terrorists. “One of the men, his back is to us, I see his palms are red with blood. The other man looks at us, we see the whites of his eyes, I look right at him, he raises his gun to us and as we’re parallel to their car, one car length away, the car next to them we see in the passenger seat one man and one woman, shot dead.”  

They drove among bodies during their escape, eventually returning home hours later. “Getting back home at 9:45 in the morning. Or and Dor are still dealing with this, running for their lives, while Hamas is hunting them.”  

These accounts were met with tears, whispers, and eventually questions by those in attendance. Ryan Bauman, a graduating senior at Vanderbilt, was also one of the student organizers of this event. He says he’d heard some of the stories but listening in person was different. “I was completely taken aback. It hit differently to see them, to hug them. Dov’s [Kapah] was one of the hardest things I’ve heard.”  

In recent weeks, Vanderbilt has been the scene of student protests focused on a student government resolution to adopt a boycott, divest, and sanction policy for student organizations. The resolution denies funding to groups who refuse to adopt a BDS policy, effectively isolating Jewish groups like Hillel and Chabad. Bauman says the campus climate has been complicated since spring break. A sit-in by students in March resulted in several student suspensions and an arrest of a journalist.  

A group of student leaders from Hillel, Chabad, and Students Supporting Israel, have focused on protecting students on campus and dealing with BDS. Bauman says hearing from the Nova survivors highlighted the importance of issues like BDS. “It reinforced our commitment to stand up for Israel. Let’s use it as momentum.”  

In the wake of the sit-in, Vanderbilt faculty members wrote a letter in support of Jewish students on campus, saying that although there is disagreement around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no student should be forced to take a particular stance. The letter reads in part: 

We are concerned by efforts to utilize institutions of governance as a lever of power to compel student groups to participate in boycotts against their will or suffer consequences. Those who wish to boycott other countries should be free to follow their conscience. We are troubled, however, at the notion of a student body that is 80-85% non-Jewish voting to force Jewish student organizations to participate in a boycott of Israel in order to be allowed to utilize student activity fee funding. No one should be forced to forswear their own identity just to belong. It is offensive that people would make an exception for Jews. We appreciate why so many Jewish students feel that, referendum or no, the petition alone is degrading. When it feels like your classmates are making your identities the subject of a vote, we can understand how the protestors’ slogan, “let us vote,” might ring hollow, as if democratic language is being used to advance illiberal ends. We are sorry that you are being made to endure this. You deserve to be treated with the same dignity as everyone else. 

The administration at Vanderbilt believes adopting a policy of institutional neutrality provides a level playing field for all students. Darren Reisberg is senior counselor in the Office of the Chancellor. He says, “The chancellor’s position on institutional neutrality which really does encourage the faculty and students who have a whole range of perspectives to voice them and to feel comfortable in doing so. The university is not putting its thumb on the scale. As long as they follow the rules of time, manner, and place. That was something he came in with.”  

 Overall Reisberg, who arrived at Vanderbilt in January, says the campus climate has been more supportive of Jewish students than others around the country. “I have been struck by the strength and resilience of the Jewish community on campus. It is markedly distinct from anything I’ve experienced at any prior institution I’ve attended or worked,” he says.  

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