Judi Weinstein and her husband Gad Haggai, were on their usual early-morning walk through the countryside near Kibbutz Nir Oz on Oct. 7 when they saw rockets blasting overhead.
The retired teacher from Toronto took cover with her husband in a field, alerting family and friends to the barrage via WhatsApp. Her daughter, Iris Weinstein Haggai, who lives in Singapore, received a message from her mother at 6:50 a.m., telling her she was two kilometres from home and lying face down in a field with her father.
That was the last she heard from her.
Minutes later, her mother rang the home of the kibbutz paramedic to explain her husband had been shot in the head by men on motorbikes and was likely dead, while she had been shot in the arm and face. She was told an ambulance was on its way. But it never arrived – its tires had been shot out by Hamas militants.
Ms. Weinstein and her husband are believed to be the first victims of the Hamas fighters who stormed Kibbutz Nir Oz, killing and wounding residents, taking hostages, burning homes and looting. She is also thought to be the last of the older women held by Hamas – and the last Canadian. Her daughter is desperate for news of her fate.
A truck with her father’s body in the back was spotted heading toward Gaza that morning and her mother is believed to have been onboard. Though Ms. Weinstein, 70, is on the official list of hostages, she was not among the older women or foreign hostages to have been released. Her family has no idea whether she is alive or dead.
“I don’t know anything, so my mind is filling the gaps – and it’s not filling it with good gaps. Every hour I think something different – she’s dead, she’s alive, she’s starving, she was wounded,” her daughter said in an interview from Israel. “I have to hope and be hopeful. All I have is hope right now.”
She has heard stories from released hostages about being stitched up without anesthetic, and children infested with lice and living on near-starvation rations.
Ms. Weinstein, a Canadian and American citizen, moved to Toronto from New York State when she was 3 and lived there for 20 years before moving to Israel. She lived in the communal settlement of Kibbutz Nir Oz where she taught English and after retiring, started teaching mindfulness, including to children suffering anxiety. The five-foot-tall teacher also wrote poetry – including a haiku every morning – and held poetry circles for Israelis and Palestinians.
Her daughter says she was committed to the peace movement, and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. She used to attend annual events in the United States for Israeli and Palestinian children where “they could have fun together.”
“Her whole life, her and my dad were all about peace and listening to your inner self and having this peaceful, quiet healthy lifestyle. They were both vegan, whole food, plant based. They did everything they could to have a peaceful surroundings, and help others,” she said. “She is such a beautiful soul.”
She said her mother kept very close ties with Canada, returning every year from Israel to see her Canadian relatives, including her mother and brother in Toronto, who are also desperately awaiting news.
Ms. Weinstein Haggai says she knows her father has been killed, from her mother’s graphic description of his head injuries to the paramedic, but is unclear about whether her mother is alive. A thorough search failed to find her body, her phone or the distinctive neon-green jacket she was wearing.
Ms. Weinstein Haggai has flown to Israel in a desperate bid to find her mother. Two and a half weeks ago, she went to their home to try to find her father’s phone, in case it would help locate them. Unlike many others in the kibbutz, the house had not been burned down.
“The house is completely trashed. They stole everything. They stole the safe. They stole the television, their iPads. My dad left his phone in the house. They stole his phone,” she said.
Ms. Weinstein Haggai says she is in constant touch with the Israeli authorities, and also with the American authorities she says are trying to help.
She has also been in touch with Canada’s Global Affairs department and says “the communication wasn’t great.” But she feels more optimistic after a meeting on Friday with a supportive diplomat from Canada’s embassy in Israel.
“She told me ‘listen, whatever you need, we’re here,’ ” she said. “And I am totally open to that and I will be in constant contact with her now.”
Ms. Weinstein Haggai is anxious for the Canadian government to take more active steps to help secure her mother’s release, including using diplomatic channels to find out where she is and whether she is alive.
“I’m kind of feeling that I’m begging the Canadian government to not neglect my mother,” she said. “I’m sure they’re doing things behind closed doors, but it’s not being communicated to me as her daughter. I do feel like there’s so much the Canadian government can do.”
Her mother’s name remains on the official list of hostages, and she has been told that in negotiations about hostage releases her mother’s name has been raised, but there is never any response.
“We don’t know anything about my mom,” she said. “There is no intelligence about her.”
John Babcock, a spokesman for Global Affairs, said “Canadian government officials in Israel are in contact with local authorities to gather additional information.”
“We will not comment on or release any information which may compromise ongoing efforts or endanger the safety of Canadians,” he added.