Run for Their Lives brings hostage families to weekly Denver march

Feb 15, 2024 | Article, Newsletter

With newly fallen snow and crisp temperatures, Denver’s Washington Park might seem a world away from Israel’s Negev Desert. But on Sunday, February 4, the two worlds came together, joined by the voices of hostage families and their American supporters and led by an unassuming woman who launched Denver’s Run for Their Lives group.

Under the long shadows of a fast-setting sun, people gathered in the park for what has become a weekly walk to keep the plight of hostages seized by Hamas terrorists on October 7 front and center in people’s minds and hearts.

Participants holding posters at Run for Their Lives gathering at Washington Park

Jacy Berger, Deborah Greene, and Sharin Berger had traveled from Boulder to join the one-mile walk and to hear from the hostage families. They stood with pictures of the hostages and talked about their commitment to keep marching until they are released.

“I am here to stand in solidarity with the families and with the Jewish community,” said Deborah, whose husband is the rabbi at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder.

“I just need to show support and bear witness and say that I care,” said Jacy.

“These families are suffering from having their children and relatives taken away,” her sister Sharin added. “If it were my daughter who was kidnapped, I would want somebody to show up for me too.”

There are more than 168 active Run for Their Lives groups globally, all organizing weekly run or walk events calling for the immediate release of hostages held by Hamas. The initiative was founded by four Israeli friends living in California. The February 4 march in Denver was the twelfth week in a row that marchers had walked through the park.

When the time came, a nervous Maya Landau Bajayo, the Run for Their Lives Denver Group Lead, thanked everyone who had come.

“The first Saturday that we gathered in November, 24 people showed up,” Landau Bajayo said. “And look at us today. How many people would you estimate are here? Perhaps 250?”

Crowd at the Run for Their Lives gathering at Washington Park

Ayelet Smarno, a member of the hostage family delegation, stepped to the microphone and looked around at the people, men and women, young and old, Smarno’s 21-year-old son was a DJ at the Nova Festival. He fled, only to be shot and kidnapped when he sought shelter at Kibbutz Be’eri. Nearly two months after he was kidnapped, Smarno received word from the army that her son had died.

“You said there are 250 of you here,” Smarno said. “Imagine if all of you—children, old people, young people—were kidnapped. That’s what happened on October 7. Each one of you has friends in the world, many who are not Jewish. Take our story to your friends to help bring our children home.”

One person hopes to make a difference

Maya Landau Bajayo moved to the United States in 2012 with her husband and three small children so that her husband could pursue a post-doctoral degree in biology.

On the evening of October 6, she was out with professional colleagues, looking forward to a long-awaited family trip to Europe. But she found herself oddly apprehensive, with a sense of dread about an unknown impending threat. Within hours, messages from family in Israel started to arrive.

Run For Their Lives

Eldad Malka and Maya Landau Bajayo

“As the night progressed, we saw videos of terrorists in the streets,” she recalls. “Regular citizens were uploading videos of Hamas terrorists outside their doors. The videos were so horrible, I had to stop watching. But when I woke up the next morning, my husband was still staring at the computer. He said, ‘There is a war.’”

Like many Jews in the U.S., Landau Bajayo wanted to do something to help Israel, but she had no idea where to start. When she read about Run for Their Lives in a Facebook post, she went to the website and filled out an application.

From there, the Denver-based initiative grew by word of mouth. She connected with Eldad Malka, Regional Director of the Israel American Council (IAC), and he helped network, contacting speakers like Senator Dafna Michaelson Jenet and connecting with the hostage families.

A self-described introvert who has never organized anything like this before, Landau Bajayo still seems taken aback by the success of Denver Run for Their Lives.

Run for Their Lives at Wash Park

“This is a global movement and every week we have impact,” she says. “Sometimes you wonder if you are really making a difference, but when we saw the hostage families, we could show them we are with them, and they are not alone.”

Landau Bajayo also has a personal investment in Walk for Their Lives. Her husband’s cousin was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz. The family has been notified that he is no longer alive. He was 51 years old. His body remains in Gaza.

Families hope to make a difference

At Washington Park, members of the hostage families spoke, one by one, telling their stories of crushing grief.

Nissim Lok’s daughter, Shani, was kidnapped after leaving the Nova Festival. Israeli officials later confirmed that she had been killed by Hamas. The only remaining trace of her body is a small particle from her skull. “We pray that all the bodies will be brought back,” her father said. “The future of Israel is also the future of your children. Your roots are in Israel, so please help us now.”

Family members of hostages speak at Run for Their Lives gathering at Washington Park

Avraham Munder, 79, was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz on motorcycle. His nephew spoke on his behalf at Run for their Lives. “To think that they could take someone and make them disappear—there are no words. The sense of security for us is shattered. This is a universal lesson. If it could happen to my uncle, it could happen to anyone.”

Sharon Kaldaron spent 34 hours in her safe room waiting to be rescued after October 7. “More than 100 people that we love, our friends our family, have been murdered. Ofer, my brother-in-law has been kidnapped. Whatever you can do to help us, that is what we are asking.”

Ravid Ohad is the cousin of Noa Argamani, the young woman seen kidnapped by motorcycle in a video released by Hamas in the early hours of the attack. “Noa is the only child of her parents Liora and Yaakov,” Ravid said. “Her mother has advanced brain cancer. Time is running out for both Noa and her mother Liora and for all the kidnapped hostages.”

Participants hold banner at Run for Their Lives gathering at Washington Park

After the hostages spoke, Run for Their Lives began the weekly walk, led by Landau Bajayo. Slowly, they made their way around Smith Lake as the sun dropped behind the mountains. Included among the marchers was Michael Nixon who is not Jewish but came to support his girlfriend and her community and summed up the feelings of many as they marched.

“It is outrageous what happened on October 7—barbaric, inhuman, and unacceptable,” he said. “But in this world, things get forgotten very quickly. It is heartbreaking to listen to the families of the hostages. I’m here because this kind of event can help keep the story alive and bring the hostages home now.”