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Mishloach manot for my ‘brother’, imprisoned in Gaza

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For South African BCom Marketing student Kayla Lowenstein, the call for the return of the hostages is personal. One of the young men still being held hostage by Hamas, along with 132 others, was her host brother when she was in high school at Naale Elite Academy and was living at its boarding school.

Omer Shem Tov, her host brother, was taken hostage by Hamas on 7 October, and she used her sense of panic about him to create awareness of his and the other hostages’ plight over Purim through an initiative led by the Jewish National Fund (JNF).

On her initiative, the JNF organised a mishloach manot – gifts sent to friends or family members for Purim – swap dedicated to the safe return of the hostages.

“It’s about taking a happy thing and a happy holiday and being able to connect it to such a dark time,” said Lowenstein. “And to be able to do something on behalf of the hostages who can’t do this mitzvah or give back. It’s good to be able to keep their names in memory and to remember them every single day as much as possible.”

Through this initiative, members of the community get a package along with the name and picture of a hostage in Israel for whom they will be performing this mitzvah.

Lowenstein was paired with the Shem Tov family – Shelley and Malki and their three children, Amit, Dana, and Omer – to be her home from home while she was far from her own family in South Africa.

“They made me feel so welcome and at home. I even had a room there. They honestly are my other family, my home away from home,” said Lowenstein, “Omer was the first member of the family that I met when I got there. He would pick me up from the boarding school, and we would chat. We had a sibling relationship.”

Lowenstein was at home in Johannesburg on 7 October when she awoke to the horrific news of Hamas invading Israel. She immediately tried to contact everyone she knew in Israel from her school days, including the Shem Tov family. “A million things were going through my head,” she said.

However, the Shem Tov family didn’t respond, and her heart sank when she heard that Omer was declared missing. “That’s when panic set in,” she said. “We knew he was at the Nova festival, but we were hoping that maybe he had run off somewhere, escaped, and was hiding, but he was there,” Lowenstein said.

She later heard from the Shem Tov family that once Hamas militants had entered the music festival, Omer had called his parents to let them know what was happening. As time went on, their ability to communicate with Omer dwindled.

Omer shared his location with his family while he was at the music festival, and his parents were able to see his location moving towards Gaza. Later, Omer was declared missing.

His family and friends found out only days later that he had been taken hostage by Hamas from a Telegram video showing Omer lying on the ground with one of his friends. His parents were able to recognise Omer because of his tattoos.

Omer’s family told her they had dedicated themselves to bringing Omer and all of the other hostages home. His two sisters, Amit and Dana, have travelled all over the world to bring awareness about his and the others’ plight, and to fight every second they can so they can bring them home.

“He’s just such a lively person,” said Lowenstein. “Whenever Omer’s in a room, everyone is laughing and smiling. There’s just no negativity around him. He loves music. He loves being behind a DJ stand.

“Whenever I was at the house, I would always hear him singing from my room, whether he was in the shower, the kitchen, or his room. He loved to be with his friends. He loved to be with his family. He and his family have such an incredible bond. They love him so much. He’s just the light of the family. There’s not one bad word that can be said about Omer. He’s just like that happiness in the darkness,” said Lowenstein.

“I won’t stop talking about Omer and the other hostages, no matter how difficult it might be, until they are brought home.”

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