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A cousin of an Israeli man held hostage by Hamas will speak in Sarasota

Woman wearing black beanie hat holds sign of young man with the words "Bring Him Home Now." She wears a T-shirt with same image.
Leat Ruben Unger
Leat Ruben Unger holds a sign with the photo of Omer Shem Tov, who was taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7. Protesters as well as family members are calling for the release of those held hostage.

A cousin of 21-year old Omer Shem Tov –- one of the estimated 134 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza — will share his story at a free community event Wednesday at Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota.

This week, Israeli officials are meeting with representatives from Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. to pick up talks on a hostage deal that has been stalled for months.

Meanwhile, six months into Israel's war with Hamas, families of the 134 hostages still being held in Gaza await their return.

One of the people in the U.S. keeping up pressure to release the hostages is a cousin of 21-year-old Omer Shem Tov, one of the people kidnapped Oct. 7 during Hamas' deadly attack at the Nova Music Festival in Israel.

Leat Ruben Unger, who helps maintain a social media account about her cousin, will speak Wednesday at Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota.

WUSF's Cathy Carter recently spoke with Leat Ruben Unger.

Leat, tell us about your cousin, Omer.

Omer is funny and sweet. Everyone always just wants to be around him. He's beautiful and handsome on the outside as much as he is on the inside.

What do you know about the circumstances of his kidnapping?

Omer went to the Nova Music Festival and rocket fire began at 6:30 in the morning. While terrorists approached, Omer and his friends, Maya and Itay Regev, tried to flee, running with the rest of the young people who were at the festival through the fields. And somehow by a miracle, a boy that they met a few hours earlier ... called Omer to share his Live Location, Maya as well, and he went back like a hero (and) picked them up in his car.

On their escape route, they were surrounded by many terrorists who opened live fire on the car. They wounded both Itay and Maya, Maya more severely. They ducked their heads, and when they lifted it up, (their friend) was not in the car anymore, so we don't know the circumstances of what happened to him.

Young man with beard and blue eyes, wearing white shirt smiles into camera
Courtesy of Leat Ruben Unger
Omer Shem Tov was taken captive by Hamas on Oct. 7 2023 during the deadly attack at the Nova Music Festival.

But we do know that Maya, Itay and Omer were grabbed and thrown into that infamous white pickup truck, hands tied behind their back.

And while Omer was on a Live Location share with his family, he entered, along with his friends, Gaza. About 30 minutes into Gaza is when the communication signal ended.

Is his family getting any information? And how are they coping?

The only information that we have is whatever's available in the media. We don't have any other information beyond that.

But the most recent information that we have is from 120 days ago. Maya and Itay were released during the last cease-fire hostage prisoner exchange.

So all the information that we have about Omer is from that time period where Itay was kept in the same room as Omer. And that is the last information that we have about Omer.

And in terms of how his family is coping, his parents and his siblings?

I mean, let's just say that they're surviving and breathing and fighting with every bone and cell in their body. It's survival mode. It's fight mode.

After all this time, do you think Omer is safe?

I pray that he is, and I won't let my mind go into any other space. We know from Itay that Omer was the force of optimism and strength for them when they were being held captive. And he was the one who picked Itay up when he was down and ready to give up. So I feel Omer is as strong as he can be.

It’s been six months now since your cousin was taken. How should this war end?

Ultimately, signing a deal that returns all of our hostages in exchange for a cease-fire is really the only way to ensure an end to this bloodshed and the suffering.

It's the way to ensure humanitarian relief for Omer and 134 loved ones. It's a way to ensure humanitarian relief for all innocent suffering on all sides.

I think that it's a way to begin the diplomatic process to make sure that the people who are suffering are not forced to suffer anymore.

My hope is that the bloodshed should end, innocent suffering should end, but that must happen first and foremost with the return of our hostages.

Leat Ruben Unger will speak at Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.