Sophie Stillman wasn’t supposed to be on a kibbutz near the Gaza border on Saturday, Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked.
Normally, Stillman, a former Lone Soldier in the Israel Defence Forces from Minnesota, is at her home in Tel Aviv. But about once or twice a month, she drives to Kibbutz Urim to bring in Shabbat with her adoptive Israeli family.
“I always do this, where I tell them I’m coming for the [Friday night meal] and I’m probably not going to sleep there,” Stillman said. But, “I always throw a pair of pajamas and a toothbrush in the car and say, ok, now I have something if I do want to stay – and they always end up convincing me.”
The weekend was supposed to be a happy one. One of Stillman’s adoptive sisters, currently in the IDF, was able to take some time off from her army base and wanted to see her.
Then came Saturday morning. At 6:30 a.m., Stillman and her adoptive sisters and father woke up to rocket sirens (Stillman’s adoptive mother was out on an early morning run and took shelter in the city of Be’er Sheva).
With no safe room in the house, Stillman and the family went to one of the kibbutz’s above-ground rocket shelters. But facing the chilly early morning air, needing a bathroom, and realizing the rocket barrage would last a while, Stillman and the family joined a group of about 15 people in an underground rocket shelter.
That’s when news started trickling in that this was not a normal rocket barrage. Hamas, the Iran-backed terrorist group that controls Gaza, was invading nearby Israeli communities in a surprise attack that would brutally murder over 1,400 people and take over 200 hostages.
One of the men in the kibbutz shelter received a call from his dad, who said he’d been shot.
“All we hear on our end is, ‘No, there’s no way, you’re kidding, what are you talking about? Who shot you?’” Stillman said. “We all look at each other like, what is going on here?”
Then a friend sent Stillman a now-infamous video of Hamas terrorists riding in the back of a pickup truck in the nearby town of Sderot.
Word also started coming through the IDF soldiers’ group chats. On Stillman’s adoptive sister’s army base, close to the Gaza border, one soldier was kidnapped and four killed – a number that, though few at that point knew, was soon to grow.
“I have never wanted more guns to be around in my entire life,” Stillman said. “We started realizing what was going on. And at a certain point, my sister says to me, ‘No one on Kfar Aza is answering their phones, not a single person is answering their phones.’ It stayed like that all day long. Nobody could get a hold of anyone that was on Kfar Aza.”
Kfar Aza, a small Israeli community near the Gaza border, was one of the hardest hit in the attack. Hamas terrorists, as they did elsewhere, went house to house to torture and murder civilians, with reports of beheadings, families tied together and burned alive, and many other atrocities.
Another video came to Stillman’s phone, this time of an Israeli girl in bloodied sweatpants held hostage in Gaza. More messages in group chats flew back and forth about missing people, with lists of names shared to check their last known location.
Stillman left the shelter for some fresh air and heard a barrage of gunfire. She only learned afterward that she was hearing Hamas’ attack on an Israeli music festival nearby, where attendees were slaughtered.
“At the time, I thought [the gunfire] was two-sided, that it was some sort of a firefight,” Stillman said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, good. They’re taking out the terrorists.’ And what I realized after the fact was that I was hearing an absolute massacre.”
The news became more and more dire, scaring Stillman and reaching her family in Minnesota.
“This is the first time I’ve ever called them and said I’m scared,” Stillman said. “It was probably like 7:40 a.m., I must have called and been like, I’m okay. Well, I’m a little scared, and sort of explained the situation. And inside, I’m freaking out now. I didn’t want my parents to have the hysterical phone call of, ‘I’m going to be killed. I’m going to be shot.’ I didn’t want that to be their last time talking to me.”
After Stillman hung up, the mom of another family in the rocket shelter hugged her, and she burst into tears.
The rest of Saturday was spent in survival mode amid conflicting reports of Hamas infiltrating the kibbutz.
“You don’t know what your fate is, for 24 hours, you’re terrified,” Stillman said. “How do you trust yourself to sleep?”
When the sheltering group finally decided to sleep, they hunkered down near an emergency exit, so that if terrorists came in, there was a way out.
“Not that getting out was necessarily going to be the right call either because they’d probably be out there, but I’d rather not watch everyone…You have all these thoughts that go through your head,” Stillman said.
Finally, on Sunday, an army escort came to get Stillman and the others out, even as Hamas militants were still roaming around. The drive back up to Tel Aviv was surreal.
“I had driven down those roads where these atrocities happened literally Friday night, singing in my car, listening to music, watching the sunset as I got to Urim,” Stillman said.
“The next time I left the kibbutz it was all filled with dust, smoke…I see cars on the side of the street that have been abandoned and shot through,” she said. “You see broken windows and glass, you’re like, what kind of a world…I went in and came out to a different world.”
Back in Tel Aviv now, Stillman is staying over at a friend’s place while in the army reserves, aware that she is traumatized but without any time to really process what she went through.
“It’s not something that you can be in shock, and then begin to process – because how do you process something while it’s still going on?” she said.
But the fallout of Hamas’ attack is society-wide. Every Israeli knows someone affected.
“It’s so awful, because the way people are talking to each other, it’s like, ‘Oh, you know so and so? Oh, yeah, she’s dead. Oh, you know that one guy that we…yeah, he’s being held hostage. But he’s probably dead too,’” Stillman said.
On a personal level, the pain hasn’t ended. Stillman knows some of the killed – including someone who, in Stillman’s first year in Israel, she spent nearly every Shabbat with.
Meanwhile, her adoptive family was evacuated from Kibbutz Urim, but her adoptive sister is back on the IDF army base where most of her fellow soldiers were murdered by Hamas.
“I don’t know how you go there,” Stillman said. “I told her she’s one of the strongest people I know. She’s 20 years old. She’s a baby, and she’s now having to go to the place where all her friends were murdered, and sit there and focus and work. I don’t know how you do that.”
But there’s also been some light amid the darkness. Countless people sent Stillman messages of love and support – and while she doesn’t necessarily have the time or energy to respond to everyone, she’s overwhelmed in a good way, she said.
Just as for many Israelis, the events of Oct. 7 have made Stillman more determined to fight for Israel.
“What I want people to know is that…despite all the darkness, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We are not defeated, we are strong, we are prepared, and people are angry…it’s my greatest honor, serving in reserves and being able to fight for the Jewish people.”
Stillman also wants to make sure people remember what this war is about, and that there are many ways to help, like donating and volunteering.
Hamas’ attack “was a pogrom,” she said. “This wasn’t about freedom. This was about causing horrific, horrific terror on civilians…this is not just Israel’s war, it’s all of ours. And I think every Jew has something that they can do to help.”