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South Floridians Grieve Following Hamas’ Surprise Attack on Israel

After more than 1,300 people were murdered last weekend, Jews and Israelis across Florida fear for the safety of their loved ones. For some, the losses are personal and familial.

Nicole Bergmann | MediaLab@FAU

Oct 13, 2023

Many South Floridians with connections to Israel are trying their best to grieve as their friends and family overseas face devastation.

Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, launched a surprise attack on Israel beginning early Saturday. Israeli fatalities numbered 1,300 as of Friday. The group broke through and flew over Israel’s border from the Gaza Strip, an area Hamas has controlled since 2007, infiltrating multiple communities along the border. Israeli cities also came under intense rocket fire.

An intimate and tearful candlelight vigil, organized by Florida Atlantic University’s Students Supporting Israel, was held in the backyard of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house in Delray Beach. Although the event was small with approximately 40 people in attendance, security was tight–the address was word of mouth and security guards asked attendees for their full names as they arrived. 

Many young people attended with Israel’s blue and white flag draped over their shoulders. They lined up before a folding table, upon which stood white tea candles, waiting their turn to light one; each candle represented the Israeli lives lost. 

The horrific attacks and ensuing war have caught the attention of the world. For many South Floridians, the tragedies hit much closer to home.

Palm Beach State College student Adiel Sverdlic, 20, and her family were worried when her Israeli cousin went missing last Saturday. Adam Ilaev, 22, was nowhere to be found after attending the Supernova trance music festival that was attacked by Hamas.

The young man’s car was found abandoned–the windows reportedly smashed–on a street near the festival site, roughly three miles away from the Gaza Strip, just outside Kibbutz Re'im in Israel. Inside the car, Ilaev’s and his girlfriend's belongings were covered with blood. 

Adam Ilaev kissing his mother, Zoya Shimonov. Ilaev was killed on Saturday as Hamas invaded southern Israel. (Photo courtesy of Adiel Sverdlic)

While Sverdlic and her family were initially certain that Ilaev was among those who Hamas took hostage, his body was later identified in a morgue. Sverdlic said that she’s hardly been able to sleep since.

“Nothing in the universe gives you a valid excuse or justification for torturing and raping and killing so many innocent young people. This is a terrorist group that we’re talking about,” said Sverdlic, who added that she understood that many “innocent Palestinians” don’t support Hamas. 

Sverdlic and Ilaev grew up together in New York City. Sverdlic was born in Israel and moved to the United States at the age of three. Ilaev moved back to Israel with his family when he was 11. 

“I feel guilty that I’m here [in the United States] and I get to do things that they can’t, I get to go about my life. I feel like I shouldn’t be able to do that because there’s so many people suffering,” said Sverdlic.

Many students shared similar sentiments at the vigil. 

“This is going to be a story I tell my kids,” said Ariana Hoblin, a Florida Atlantic University student and the founder of FAU’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel. 

Hoblin recalled her phone vibrating with multiple notifications signaling that rockets had been launched at Israel. When she went to bed on Friday, she was informed of around 500 rockets. She woke up Saturday morning to the news that at least 2,000 rockets hit Israel and 200 people were killed. By Sunday morning, 700 people were killed.

The vigil ended with everyone singing Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah” (The Hope).  


“Obviously there’s a lot of bad things that go on in the world, like for instance, Ukraine or the Hawaii fires,” said Amelia Fish, a Lynn University student. “It just felt different because people I actually know and really genuinely care about are in danger.”

Fish visited Israel this past January through Birthright. Birthright is an organization that allows Jewish young adults to visit Israel for free. 

Fish said she made many friends on the trip, one of them being an American college student from Maryland. He just moved to Haifa, Israel last week for graduate school. He shared with Fish the fear he experienced in having to run for shelter as the northern part of the country started to come under fire by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militant group in southern Lebanon.

Throughout South Florida there have been many vigils, prayer meetings and solidarity rallies supporting Israel this past week. 

“South Florida has a really wonderful, rich, vibrant Jewish community and I feel so lucky to live here and to be connected to such a strong community,” said Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah.

Pessah leads services at various synagogues primarily in Palm Beach and Broward County. She also has family in Israel and has visited the country over 20 times. 

On Wednesday, Pessah was at jury duty when she noticed a man in the lounge area wearing a kippah. A kippah is a head covering primarily worn by males who practice Orthodox Judaism. She looked at him and asked if he has any family in Israel. He said that he did. 

The two forged an instant connection and realized that they live 15 minutes away from each other. Pessah is a member of the Conservative Jewish community while the man is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community. Their different streams suddenly felt irrelevant in light of the crisis.

“None of that matters anymore,” said Pessah. “Right now we are all in this together.”

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