Eden Shmuel, 32, recounts surviving the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on the Nova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im, Israel, at a private home in Piedmont, Feb. 8, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Eden Shmuel, 32, recounts surviving the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on the Nova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im, Israel, at a private home in Piedmont, Feb. 8, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Telling her story in Bay Area helps Oct. 7 Nova massacre survivor ‘live again’

After surviving the Hamas massacre at the Nova music festival, Eden Shmuel couldn’t leave the house. She couldn’t work. She could barely talk. She just hunkered down in her Rishon L’Tzion home, in a daze of grief and guilt.

“I asked God: Why did I live and so many others didn’t?” the 32-year-old lawyer told about 35 people gathered to hear her speak Thursday night at a home in Piedmont.

Shmuel came to the Bay Area as part of a three-week visit to Jewish communities across the U.S. to tell her story to raise money for a nonprofit she has co-founded to help survivors heal — and to heal herself. After therapy didn’t help, she took a friend’s suggestion to take to the road and share her tale with diaspora Jews, a kind of talk-therapy in the public eye.

“It worked,” she told J. before her talk. “I began to live again.”

On this, her first visit to the United State, she spoke in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Her stop in Northern California is the last leg of the tour.

A day earlier, she spoke at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham at an event co-sponsored by Beth Jacob Congregation and Temple Sinai. She also addressed students at Homestead High School in Cupertino and is scheduled to spend Shabbat in Tahoe with 120 teens who are part of NCSY, the Orthodox youth group that has paid for her travel.

Her talk was intensely personal, filled with tiny details, a minute-by-minute recounting of 24 hours she called “the most beautiful and the most horrible” of her life.

She described how her best friend, Shira Cohen, called her at 11 p.m. Oct. 6, and begged her to drive down to the Nova music festival, set in the desert about three miles from the Gaza border in southern Israel. Last-minute tickets were still available.

“I told her, ‘I haven’t gone to a music festival in 10 years,’” Shmuel recalled. But Cohen talked her into it. And in the wee hours of the morning, they were in a car with three other girlfriends, headed to Kibbutz Re’im, which had opened its fields to the festival organizers.

For hours the young women laughed and danced, enjoying the ecstatic atmosphere of the trance music party with some 3,000 other Israelis. Shmuel showed a short video at her talk that documented the nighttime rave, bodies twirling in the desert darkness and throwing up their arms in delight.

“It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” she said. “There was a dance area, a makeup area, a food area. We’d go from one tent to the next — oh, there’s my friend from Brazil, there’s my friend from Thailand,” she said, referring to young Israelis recognizing one another from post-army trips abroad.

“We were all waiting for one thing: sunrise. It’s a really big part of parties in nature. People come to Nova festivals just to see the sunrise.”

Photos Eden's friends, Livnat (left) and Hadar (right), are among a sea of photos of the dead that act as a makeshift memorial at the site of the Nova festival.(Photo/Courtesy Eden Shmuel)
Photos of Eden’s friends, Livnat (left) and Hadar (right), are among a sea of photos of the dead that act as a makeshift memorial at the site of the Nova festival. (Photo/Courtesy Eden Shmuel)

This sunrise, however, brought disaster. In Shmuel’s video, a siren blast is heard at 6:29 a.m. People begin looking up at the sky. Voices are heard in the video, asking what’s going on. One young woman is caught on screen, saying directly into the camera, “I don’t want to die now.”

Shmuel’s mother called to ask where she was because there were attacks all over Israel. Shmuel told her everything was OK.

But it wasn’t. Slowly, as precious minutes ticked by, festival-goers began to understand that something wasn’t right.

“It was a nightmare,” she recounted. “The sky was full of rockets. People were crying and screaming.” The five friends lay on the ground, covering their heads with their arms. A policewoman approached and said: If you have a car, get in it and go now.

“She knew something we didn’t,” Shmuel said.

The friends broke into two groups. Two of them — Livnat Levi and Hadar Hoshen — ran to get the car, while the others stayed behind. They never saw Livnat or Hadar again. Both died in a bomb shelter that seemed to have been set on fire. Their bodies were identified 10 days later, two of the 364 people murdered that day. Another 40 were taken hostage.

Shmuel and her two remaining friends ran from one hiding place to another, hearing rumors, not knowing how to escape. They hitched rides with people leaving the festival, heading east on the single road out of the area, but there were huge traffic jams. They heard shouting and shooting up ahead. They didn’t know it at the time, but festival-goers at the front of the line were being murdered in their cars.

“All the cars turned around at the same time. There were car accidents. It was chaos.” The car they were in arrived at the gates of nearby Kibbutz Be’eri and they shouted to be let in, not knowing that terrorists were already inside and murdering residents.

“No one answered us, thank God,” she said.

“Fear is all over your body. I can’t explain what it feels like. You move into survival mode,” she said. They headed back to the exit route and started driving east again.

“As we drove, a terrorist pointed a gun at us. I saw another terrorist dragging a body. I told the driver, ‘Don’t look, just drive.’ All around us, we saw abandoned cars and dead bodies.”

They made it out. By evening, Shmuel was home. One look at her eyes, and her mother knew everything, she said.

A small audience listens intently as Eden shares her story at a home in Piedmont, Feb. 8, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
A small audience listens intently as Eden shares her story at a home in Piedmont, Feb. 8, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Livnat and Hadar were buried next to each other.

“After that day, I felt I had no reason to live,” Shmuel said. “Why didn’t God take me? Why these beautiful souls while I stay here?”

After months of despair, she got a call from Rabbi Akiva Naiman, a former Bay Area resident who had founded the local chapter of NCSY and was now living in Israel. He knew Shmuel’s brother, a wounded soldier, who told the rabbi that Eden had survived the festival massacre.

Naiman was the one who suggested she start talking about her story. He invited her to speak at the Tahoe Shabbaton, and she built a lecture tour around it.

He is also helping her with the nonprofit she has set up with Shira, her best friend who also survived, to help other festival-goers recover. Called Beginning to Live Again, it aims to bring groups of 30 survivors together for clinical therapy and discussions about how to rebuild their lives. Their goal is to raise $54,000 for the first group. As of this week, they have raised $33,000.

Beginning to Live Again is one of several initiatives that have sprung up in Israel since Oct. 7 to help festival survivors overcome their trauma. There is also a documentary in the works, “Supernova: A Music Festival Massacre,” and an ongoing exhibit at Expo Tel Aviv, formerly the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, telling the story of the massacre and its aftermath. A memorial has been created at the festival site, displaying photos of those who didn’t survive.

For Shmuel, playing her part in the national healing and remembrance effort means everything.

“When I came to the United States, something changed,” she said. “Since I started talking about it to people, I’m different. Two months ago I couldn’t talk about the trauma. Now I want to talk to people all the time. It’s actually my therapy, the belief that I’m doing something to help other survivors.”

Her visit has also changed her view of the Jewish diaspora, something she never gave a thought about, she said.

“Before Oct. 7, I never wanted to come to the U.S. It’s too big, too busy. I like beaches and parties and cocktails,” she said, with an embarrassed smile. “But when I came here I understood for the first time that we are one people. I felt how much you care about Israel, the kibbutzim, the soldiers, the hostages, the survivors.”

She has asked fellow Jews outside of Israel why they feel that way.

“People explained to me that their hearts are in Israel,” she said. “Now I know — am Yisrael chai — no matter what.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].