Rom El-Hai has traveled the world going to trance music festivals, but he was going to pass on going to the Nova Music Festival in southern Israel, which started at midnight on Oct. 7. The ticket prices were a little too high for him, but then a friend presented him with an opportunity: volunteer for a four-hour shift – making sure the dance floor was clean and that people weren’t fighting, and get a free ticket.
It was an opportunity that was too good to pass up – and it nearly cost him his life.
The Nova Music Festival was one of the areas hit hardest by Hamas when it attacked Israel in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 7, where 364 people were killed by members of the Iranian-backed terrorist organization.
El-Hai spoke to students and other supporters at Minnesota Hillel Friday morning, where he detailed the grueling efforts to stay hidden and make his way east – away from Gaza – to be rescued and get home to his family in Netanya.
The 29-year-old is touring college campuses in the United States through the Faces Of October Seventh project, an initiative that brings the voices of survivors to communities and campuses across North America. El-Hai will spend Shabbat morning at events at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul and Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park. He’ll then travel to Chicago, Atlanta and North Carolina. Doron Gertzovski, who is traveling with El-Hai and helping with logistics, formerly worked at Duke University Hillel as a shlicha.
“It’s important [that I’m here], because it’s not only my story, it’s an Israeli story,” El-Hai said. “For me that day was actually a holocaust. As Israel, as Jews, we have to remember all the things that happened and never forget so that thing will never happen again.”
Part of the reason that El-Hai is able to make the trip to the U.S. is because he is exempt from IDF Reserve duty since he injured his knee while he served. Also, many of the survivors from the festival were exempted from having to be called, although some were, depending on their jobs.
Talking to the group of students, El-Hai was able to show pictures and videos taken by himself and friends, both enjoying the festival, and then the sights and sounds of the attack. After the attack started and he and his friends were forced out of their vehicle, he showed his view hiding between two cars.
Later he showed a picture from within the nearby forest, where the cars that were abandoned were smoldering.
“I was a shock in that moment,” he said. “If I didn’t make the decision to move, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Eventually the group made it to the Jewish village of Maslul, where they were met with residents offering food, water, and cell phone chargers. The villagers took the names of those who came to Maslul and published them online.
“People who I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out,” he said.
He eventually made to Be’er Sheva, where he started to learn the full extent of what had happened in Israel that day.
“It was a humiliating moment,” he said. “A friend showed me video of friends from the festival who got taken to Gaza. It was a guy in the same blue bracelet that I had. It could easily be me right now.”
By 10 p.m., after nearly 16 hours after leaving the festival, he returned home to Netanya and his family.
“It was a tough moment,” he said. “I’m alive, in one piece but I was hurting. I survived, but I have many friends who didn’t.”
El-Hai said the trance music community in Israel travels to festivals, often around the world; so even if he don’t know all those who were killed personally, he knew their faces from being with them.
In the weeks since, the survivors of the festival have had access to various therapies to help.
“We can speak to each other about the experiences. I’ve been there a lot and was very helpful,” he said. “I can say after a few weeks, I’ve gotten stronger and more open to talk about it. I know it’s important for the country and me personally.”
Minnesota Hillel’s Israel Fellow, Batel Maliah, said that having El-Hai at the Hillel fits into the mission of creating leaders.
“They will know and be very confident of their information and what happened,” she said. “We want to encourage them to be outspoken and talk about these things. Hearing it firsthand is the best way to do that.”
It’s hard for El-Hai to talk about what happened, but he understands the mission.
“I know why it’s so important so that everyone can hear the stories,” he said. “Even if it’s hard we have to do that. I think that story can also connect [people].”