As a fragile truce between Hamas and Israel leads to more exchanges, friends and family of the released hostages are breathing a sigh of relief around the world—including in Toronto.
Of the 14 Israeli hostages freed Sunday, four of them have a family connection to Canada. Hagar Brodutch, 39, and her kids — four-year-old Uriah, eight-year-old Yuval and 10-year-old Ofri Brodutch— are now safely back home in Israel. But the relief of their safe return stretches all the way to Toronto, where a community has been anxiously awaiting news.
Family friend Shoshana Lipschultz told CTV National News that she felt “tears of joy,” when she heard the family was among those being released.
“Tears of joy and also recognizing that so many people are still being held and so many people are still in pain waiting for their loved ones to return,” she said.
Lipschultz, who is a camp director, had Ofri as one of her campers this past summer when she was visiting her cousins in Toronto as part of a trip with her mother.
“She’s just young and bubbly and she took to camp like you just wouldn’t believe,” Lipschultz said. “She wanted to try everything, she wanted to be friends with everyone.”
Lipschultz said that one of her fondest memories of Ofri was when the 10-year-old would tease her about her Hebrew.
“My Hebrew is not great, and Ofri really liked to let me know that my Hebrew was not great, but also she appreciated that I made (an) effort, because her English is not great,” Lipschultz said. “So that was one of the warm moments that we had together.”
Sunday’s hostage release comes as part of a deal agreed upon by Israel and Hamas after seven weeks of war.
On Oct. 7, Hamas militants attacked Israel, killing 1,200 and taking nearly 240 people hostage. In the weeks that followed, Israel has bombarded the Gaza Strip with aerial strikes, cut off food, water, electricity and fuel, and launched a ground assault. More than 13,300 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, and roughly two-thirds of them are women and children.
Earlier this week, a deal was struck for a pause: it was agreed that during a four-day ceasefire, Hamas would release 50 hostages in exchange for the release of 150 Palestinians kept prisoner in Israel. All hostages and prisoners being released are women and children, the Associated Press reports.
The news that Ofri and her brothers and mother were on the list of hostages to be released on Sunday was a huge relief to her aunt, uncle and cousins in Canada—as well as the wider community concerned for their safety. Hagar’s brother-in-law, Toronto resident Aharon Brodutch, spoke to CTV News Toronto earlier this month, calling on Canada to do more to bring the hostages home.
Noah Shack works with the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, a local Jewish community group that has also been running a letter-writing campaign to try to send their thoughts to the Israeli hostages still held in Gaza.
The campaign was originally inspired by the plight of the Brodutch family, he said.
“It was sparked by a cousin of one of the hostages sending a letter to a cousin who had spent the summer in Toronto with her, going to summer camp here, and it snowballed into more than 500 people writing letters every single day to the Red Cross,” he told CTV National News.
The letters, which are sent to the Red Cross in the hopes that they may be able to help the letters reach hostages, are written by “family members, friends that Ofri had made during her summer in Toronto, and people in the broader community who have been devastated by the plight of the hostages and really moved to do something positive,” Shack said.
Monday is the last day of the exchanges of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners, although international mediators are trying to extend the ceasefire.
The Sunday exchange included a four-year-old American girl among the Israeli hostages released by Hamas, and 39 Palestinian teenagers, Reuters reports.
Shack’s letter-writing campaign will continue for those hostages who are still being held in Gaza.
“The letters were sending hope, sending hope that they would be coming home soon,” Shack said.
Lipschultz doesn’t know if she’ll get to see Ofri at camp again, but she said if she could, she would love to drive the boat for Ofri and her Toronto cousins to go tubing—a camp activity she said Ofri had loved.
“I would love to have that and to see that exhilarated smile,” she said.
Some of the Toronto-based family are now travelling to Israel to see the freed children and their mother, and they’re hoping that soon, they will be able to bring them back to Canada for another visit.