A conversation with Nelly Ben Tal about life as a Shlicha after October 7
Nelly Ben Tal joined JEWISHcolorado as our new Shlicha (Israeli emissary) last summer. In the wake of the October 7 terrorist attack, we talked with her about her life in recent weeks.
Most Americans found out what was happening in Israel on the morning of Oct. 7, but you had already spent a sleepless night by then.
It was Friday night, October 6, and I got a group text from my friend who is the Shlicha in Dallas. Here is what she wrote to all the new Shlichim (Israeli emissaries): “My loved ones, there is a rocket attack in Israel. There are also rockets in Tel Aviv. I am updating you so that if you are awake, you can check on your family.”
Every few months, there is an incursion of some kind, but it does not start in Tel Aviv. Within a half hour, she sent the alert map, and you could see there were red alerts from the Sharon to the south. That had never happened. My friend wrote to us, “I hear about terror attacks within kibbutzim. I think about my friends and their children. I am in shock.”
From that moment, we were all awake all night long, texting with each other.
At that point, you actually knew more about what was happening than your family in Israel.
I called my father in Hadera and woke him up. When I said, “How are you?” he had no idea what I was talking about. I did not want to be the one to share horrible news because there was still so much unknown. For hours, there was no governmental confirmation of what was going on. I was messaging my friends in the Gaza envelope all night long, asking “How are you, how are your kids?” I was extremely worried about my family and friends because there was such a lack of information.
And then it became clear that the thing we had always been most afraid of had happened.
How did JEWISHcolorado respond in those early hours?
(JEWISHcolorado President and CEO) Renée (Rockford) called me. Hearing what she said, I felt that she was worried for my country. I thought, “She has my back, she is with me, we are in this together.” In general, the entire JEWISHcolorado team was mobilized for the task, with everyone understanding that alongside the grief, worry, and shock, we must act for the sake of our community here and in Israel.
All this happened just months after you moved to Denver and settled in. How does it feel to be so far from home at this awful time?
I have mixed feelings. I feel terribly sorry that I am not close to my friends and family, so sorry to be far from home at this moment. But I am also grateful that my kids are safe and far from the trauma.
The community in Colorado has been wonderful to us, but to be honest, we had only been here for two months at that point, so I didn’t feel completely integrated into this community, and I also wasn’t part of my Israeli community anymore. This is why I feel like I am caught between two worlds at the moment.
You came into this role as the Shlicha with one set of expectations for your job. Have those expectations changed?
On October 7, right away my role changed totally. I told my husband that given what has happened in Israel, and given that we are here, it has to be valuable that we are here. There has to be a purpose to my being here.
What is your purpose, what is your voice?
Being human, being united, being proactive with mutual responsibility for each other—we have to rely on these values, especially when we are tested. This is what I value as a Jew and as an Israeli.
In the weeks that have followed October 7, how have you persevered?
The information has not stopped. Every day, I get new updates from friends and friends of friends. One of the things I realized is that it is good to be with people—talking, listening, learning. That is powerful for me and the community, so I got my calendar very full. I am trying to be out meeting with all kinds of groups.
At the beginning, everyone wanted to hear the story and grieve. They wanted to better understand how this happened. The first week, there was a lot of crying, hugging, and sharing of feelings.
As time passed, the grief has transitioned into questioning. What role does October 7 play in the history of conflict between Palestinians and Jews? How do the things that are happening in Israel affect Jews here and around the world?
When people ask questions, I bring my knowledge of Israel’s history to help find a way through these conversations. I may not know how to answer all the questions, but I support people as they ask questions.
How are you doing personally?
The catastrophe of October 7—I cannot believe it happened. This is not human in any way. It is hard to hold in my heart. How can people on earth do the things they did?
On the other hand, I am impressed by how people have come together in Israel and here in the U.S. The light that I have seen come out of people makes me believe in people again. I am grateful and that makes me cry just as I cry out of sadness.
I am glad that I am here with people doing whatever we can in every moment to make this world a better place for all of us.