Spread across the lawn at Blumenfeld Family Park in Port Washington this weekend was a Shabbat dinner table set with Challah bread, wine and flowers.
The scene was reminiscent of what so many families on the North Shore have come to expect, especially those who practice Judaism, gathering around the table on Friday nights surrounded by friends, family and loved ones.
Not one of the 240 seats around the table was filled, however. Instead, taped to the back of each chair was a picture of a hostage who was kidnapped by Hamas militants during the surprise attacks in Israel on Saturday, Oct. 7, over 40 days ago.
“When Shabbat begins on Friday night at sundown, every house becomes its own little sanctuary,” said North Hempstead Council Member Mariann Dalimonte of Port Washington. “It truly truly breaks my heart to see this beautiful Shabbat table set with so many empty chairs. Each empty chair represents a home with a missing loved one and a family that wants to be reunited.”
Those missing were remembered during a candlelight vigil at the park attended by nearly 1,000 people where community leaders, elected officials, neighbors and friends called for the safe release of those being held by Hamas.
Each flier included the person’s name, age and nationality. For some hostages who are not old enough to walk, a booster seat was put at their place, sometimes alongside sippy cups and toys.
“For the vast majority, we do not know whether they are alive, their conditions, whether they’re treated for their injuries,” Orly Dotan, one of the event organizers alongside Dalimonte, told the crowd. “We don’t know if they’re together or if they’re split up, if mothers are with their babies, we don’t know anything.”
About 10 Americans are believed to be among the more than 240 people taken into captivity, including Plainview’s Omer Neutra, a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. A small number of hostages have been released while negotiations for the others are ongoing, according to multiple reports.
On Nov. 13 Hamas released a video of the first hostage confirmed to have died in captivity, the Associated Press said.
Neutra is a 22-year-old graduate of the Schechter School of Long Island in Williston Park and a family friend of North Hempstead Council Member Veronica Lurvey, who spoke on behalf of his parents Ronen and Orna Friday night.
Lurvey described her relationship with the Neutras, whom she called her chosen family, dating back to when both their sons were classmates in Jericho.
“Omer grew up just like any other kid on Long Island,” Lurvey said. “He’s crazy about sports, he’s in a fantasy football league and he’s a fun-loving person. His friends say that his smile lights up the room.”
Omer, who was born in New York City, deferred his college acceptance and spent a gap year in Israel to connect with his family’s roots when he decided to join the IDF, Lurvey said.
Omer was serving at the Israel-Gaza border the morning of Oct. 7 when he was seized by Hamas.
“Since then five Shabbat dinners have passed. Five weeks without a call or FaceTime video,” Lurvey said. “Five weeks of uncertainty. For five weeks, Omer Neutra has been held hostage somewhere in Gaza, along with approximately 240 other hostages, babies, children, elderly, women, the disabled, all held under unknown conditions with little to no information.”
She said the Neutras believe their prayers for their son’s safety have power and that their message for those attending was to bring that same power to him in sharing his story.
“Know that there is power in speaking Omer’s name, in posting his picture, in keeping his story in the public eye,” Lurvey said. “There is power in showing him the same love and compassion that he has spent his young life showing to everyone he meets.”
Each name of those kidnapped was read by the many people in attendance, including elected and school district officials and Port students, who often read the names of hostages younger than them.
The installation, part of a worldwide trend to remember those missing, stayed in its place at Blumenfeld Park for the entire weekend, serving as a reminder of the message chanted by everyone at the end of the vigil.
“Bring them home.”