Israeli conflict hits close to home for residents in Forest Hills and neighboring communities

Forest Hills residents gathered in MacDonald Park to call for the release of hostages taken from Israel.
Photo courtesy of Ethan Felder

On Sunday, Oct. 22, dozens of Forest Hills residents showed up to MacDonald Park on Queens Boulevard to shine light on the hostages who were taken during the Oct 7. attack on Israel. 

According to the Kidnapped from Israel project, close to 200 civilians ranging from 3 months old to 85 years old were abducted by Hamas militants and taken hostage into Gaza where they still remain. Many were kidnapped from their homes, others from a music festival and some from public spaces. The first two Israeli hostages were released by Hamas on Oct. 23.

“Let us be the light. Let us keep on going,” Forest Hills community advocate Ethan Felder said at the rally. “We’re resilient people. We’ve been through tragedy before and we’re still here. We’re gonna make it through this.”

Residents bearing Israeli flags, and faith leaders for nearby synagogues, called for the immediate release of hostages. Several rabbis addressed the crowd of dozens of local residents and expressed solidarity with the victims. But there were also many others not in attendance, living in the nearby communities, that felt extra sympathetic to Israel due to their personal ties to the region.

Advocates have been sharing signs showing the faces of those who were taken hostage. Photo courtesy of Ethan Felder

Rabbi Daniel Grabber, who sang a song at the gathering, also shared that one of his former campers when he was a counselor at United Synagogue Youth is currently believed to be one of the hostages. 

Omer Neutra, a 23-year-old Israeli-American who was born and raised on Long Island, voluntarily enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces and delayed his acceptance to Binghamton University to study in Israel. He was serving from a base camp near Gaza when he was taken hostage. 

“He’s a sweet kid. He is the type of person who walks into a room and everybody smiles. It breaks my heart to know that having gone to Israel, full of conviction and love for Israel and the Jewish people, that he is currently being held as a captive in Gaza,” said Rabbi Grabber of Forest Hills Jewish Center at Saturday’s rally. 

Across the city, signs with a large red ‘KIDNAPPED’ banner have been pasted on poles and train station walls showing the faces of the hostages. Many of those posters, designed by Israeli New Yorkers, were present at the Forest Hills rally. But they can also be found across the world in Tel Aviv, among many other cities. 

After graduating from LaGuardia High School, Lorenn Peer left her family in Flushing where she grew up to voluntarily enlist for full service in the IDF. In 2012, she settled in Tel Aviv where she now lives with her husband and two daughters. She is also a flight attendant for the Israeli airline El Al, but she says her main profession is as a holocaust historian and educator. 

It was through her work that she met her teacher, Alex Dancyg, a 75-year old Holocaust historian who was confirmed to be one of the kidnapping victims. The grandfather is the son of Polish-Jewish holocaust survivors and was one of the founders of the Polish Studies department at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where his friendship with Peer began. 

Hundreds gathered in solidarity with Israel in Kew Gardens Hills days after the attacks. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

The day of the surprise attack, she tried to check on him and noticed that her messages and calls on WhatsApp weren’t going through. It turned out that Dancyg was one of 80 people taken hostage from his Kibbutz, an agricultural community set up near the Gaza border. Since then, she has been advocating for his release.

“I really commend New Yorkers. It makes me proud. There’s always been a very, very tight relationship between Israel and New York,” said Peer in a phone interview from Israel. “And so it really warms my heart that they’re standing together with Israel. And, and I hope they continue to do that.”

Her two brothers, who still live in Queens, have been doing similar putting up kidnapped posters across the borough. 

Forest Hills and nearby Kew Gardens and Rego Park has held several community gatherings in solidarity with Israel. Just two days after the surprise attack, over a dozen elected officials gathered outside the Queens Public Library in Kew Gardens Hills gathered to denounce the attack and stand with Israel. And a week after, a vigil was held in MacDonald Park to remember the over 1,000 people killed in the attack. 

Some of my group members feel that the brutality is comparable to the Holocaust. ‘Never again’ has transpired again and it is inexcusable. We must be proactive and educate our children from early on to be kind, responsible, caring, giving and proactive citizens,” said Michael Perlman, a Forest Hills historian and admin of a community Facebook group with 28,000 members. “We must unite in solidarity.”

And for some of the area’s regions, particularly in Rego Park, the violence and relation the country felt too familiar following the war in Ukraine. 

Anna Geisherik, a professor at Stony Brook university, and her 83-year old father have been living in Rego Park for the last 30 years. They are originally from Kharkiv, a region in eastern Ukraine that was one of the heaviest bombed since the Russian invasion began. With lots of loved ones there, and some property, the war hit close to come. 

Similar feelings came up after the unexpected attack on Israel. The family also has close relatives and friends in Israel, including Anna’s brother. Anna had just visited him last month, but their father Victor also wanted to visit him in Ramat Gan, a city close to Tel Aviv where he resides. 

Victor arrived in Israel on Oct. 3, just days before the unprecedented attack. And then with widespread flight cancellations and a high demand, he didn’t make it home until Oct. 22. 

“He was so scared that he was not going to make that plane,” said Anna, who struggled to get him on a return flight these past two weeks. “All these flights are completely booked. There were rumors that the flight might be canceled, or that some people can’t get on. He was so worried about that and he went to the airport like seven hours in advance.”

During Victor’s stay in Israel, Anna’s brother was called in from the reserves, leaving Victor alone in his older building apartment alone for most of the day. He is hard of hearing, but he could hear the missiles hitting the Iron Dome. The building also didn’t have an underground shelter, so when the sirens went off he had to go outside and stand under an exterior staircase. 

“We’ve been watching the news for Ukraine and now we have to watch the news for both countries,” said Anna. “It’s extremely stressful but we’re just trying to stay sane.”