Two hundred chairs, filled only with photos of the Israeli hostages taken by Hamas earlier this month, sat on a busy Irvine intersection Thursday evening.
Peppered among them were several strollers, representing the children kidnapped by Hamas.
“This entire situation is deep-rooted and complicated,” said Aaron Recter, an Irvine resident. “My main focus right now is on the innocent children who have lost their lives to this. As a father myself, I could never imagine the pain and hurt these families are feeling.”
The vigil took place at the corner of Culver Drive and Alton Parkway on the evening of Oct. 26, with about 100 people of all ages in attendance.
Many carried large Israeli or American flags in their hands. Attitudes were somber as shouts rang out with the names of the lives taken in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, but some were angered and upset over the events that have unfolded.
Genna Kirta, an Israel native, said all she wishes for is peace.
“It is unimaginable seeing your people experience this,” she said. “My hope is for calmness, for reconciliation and ultimately for the people causing terror to receive justice for their actions. Who knows when and how that will take place, but all I want is the people wrongly affected by these actions to be saved and out of harm’s way.”
“I just want peace,” Kirta said.
A consistent stream of honks came from the cars passing by the intersection; some people even hung out of their vehicles to shout in support.
“I am thankful that this event was organized,” said attendee Michael Broder, who was in tears. “It gives the people who may not be too familiar with the Israeli perspective a chance to see the impact that this war is causing.”
“I get that there are two sides to the story, but my heart stands with those who have had family members pass or hurt,” he said. “My heart stands with the children who have been taken from this world. My heart stands with the 200 chairs that are placed on this corner.”
The event was organized by the Orange County chapter of the Israeli-American Council. Rallies for Israel organized by the IAC have been held coast to coast following Hamas’ attack on Israel earlier this month, the deadliest one in decades.
Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on sleepy Israeli towns on Oct. 7 from the blockaded Gaza Strip. A stunned Israel ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip, launching waves of airstrikes on the Hamas-ruled territory.
More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed — mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack, the Israeli military said this week — and an estimated 200 people were kidnapped and are being held captive by Hamas in Gaza.
Additionally, more than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed during the war, according to the Gaza-based Health Ministry, the only official source for deaths in Gaza.
Stephaney Avital, a Newport Beach resident and member of Orange County’s Jewish community who helped put together the rally, said the point of the vigil is to keep the kidnapped men, women and children at the “forefront of people’s minds.”
“We’re trying to keep awareness of the 200+ kidnapped victims that are in Gaza still because we feel like the international community is not giving it the attention it needs or not taking it seriously to get these people out of Gaza,” Avital said. “And so here in Orange County, we’re feeling helpless.”
Tragically, she and her husband, Asher Avital, have a deeply personal connection to the Israel-Hamas war. One of Asher Avital’s cousins, 33-year-old Or Levy who attended the Supernova music festival in the Israeli desert on Oct. 7, is missing. Or Levy’s wife, 32-year-old Eynav Levy, was killed at the festival.
Or Levy holds an executive role at a technology company. Eynav Levy was a product designer. They were just two people who wanted to live their lives, have fun and listen to music, Asher Avital said.
“They had dinner with their parents the night before leaving for a day of fun, to spend time with friends and listen to music,” said Asher Avital. “Or and Eynav were hiding in a bomb shelter with maybe 20 or 30 people. And the Hamas terrorists kept throwing grenades inside.”
“And you can imagine what happened,” Asher Avital said.
The family thought it would be a matter of hours before they heard about Or Levy’s death, Asher Avital said, but Israeli military officials informed them that they thought he was kidnapped. They had located Or Levy’s phone in Gaza, Asher Avital said.
“We need our men, women and children returned from Gaza. That’s the whole point of doing this,” said Stephaney Avital.
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The Israeli-American Council is a group that spans over 22 regional offices, 73 communities and 104 campuses, each with the goal to engage a “coast-to-coast community that strengthens the Israeli and Jewish identities of our next generation.” The council began in 2007 and has been expanding ever since — the Orange County chapter was founded in 2018.
The organization’s mission, according to its website, is to “build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens the Israeli and Jewish identity of our next generation, the American Jewish community, and the bond between the peoples of the United States and the State of Israel.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.