NEW YORK (AP) — Emily Tony Korenberg Hand celebrated her eighth birthday last year romping with friends and family among the jugglers, acrobats and stilt walkers for her circus-themed party at Kibbutz Be’eri, not far from the Gaza Strip.
On Friday, when she turned 9, there was no party. Emily is believed to be somewhere in Gaza among the hostages taken by Hamas militants who swarmed her kibbutz Oct. 7 during the incursion into Israel that left some 1,200 dead and 240 abducted.
“She won’t even know it’s her birthday. She won’t know what day it is,” her tearful father, Thomas Hand, 63, said via Zoom. “Can you imagine the fear?”
Soon after the Hamas attacks, Hand had been told by leaders of Be’eri that Emily was among the dead after she had spent the night at a friend’s house on the kibbutz. His shock and grief at the news was tinged with comfort.
“I was sort of relieved because I’d rather that than have her taken hostage,” he recalled thinking. “The way they told me was Emily has been found. She was found in the kibbutz, and she’d been found dead. I’ll never forget those three statements.”
Then, on Oct. 31, Hand’s world turned upside down once again.
That’s when the Israeli military informed him Emily’s body had not been recovered, nor her DNA found among the blood and many dead at Be’eri. There was no blood in the bomb shelter she would have used or in the house where she had gone for her sleepover.
“I had to shift my whole brain and digest this new information. And when they told me, I just went, ‘No, no, no no,’” he said, his voice cracking.
Hand and his daughter, both dual Irish-Israel citizens, weren’t strangers to heartbreak. When Emily was 2½ , her mother, Liat Korenberg, died of breast cancer. Korenberg and Hand had never married and were living apart, she in Haifa and he at Be’eri after he married another woman.
Before Liat succumbed, she and Emily moved in with Hand at Be’eri so Emily’s transition would be easier. Liat suffered for just over two years.
At the kibbutz, Emily quickly made friends and settled into school. She has varied interests: Brazilian dance, judo, volleyball, tennis and piano. She loves gymnastics. She excels at academics. “This year she wanted to learn the guitar. I hope that happens,” her father said.
Emily, he said, is a leader among her friends. “She didn’t demand to be. People just followed her,” he said.
Emily’s life includes her father’s now ex-wife, Narkis Hand, and two older children from his marriage that ended more than 20 years ago. Emily remains close with Narkis and her now-grown half-siblings, including 26-year-old Natalie. They also live at Be’eri, a tight-knit community Hand discovered as a volunteer before he decided to stay 30 years ago.
“Emily loved cooking so Emily and Natalie would cook together,” said Hand, a Dublin native. “Narkis really became Emily’s second mother. Even Narkis’ mother, she became a second grandmother.”
In a message to her sister, Natalie told The Times of Israel: “I want to tell you that we are doing everything to get you home. We know you are being held hostage. We love you so much and miss you.”
Hand was in New York for media interviews but also to unveil a billboard of Emily on Friday in Times Square. It’s the first of hundreds to go up around the United States with images of the hostages as some protesters continue to tear down “kidnapped” posters. A billboard, Hand said, can’t be ripped apart.
“Can you imagine what that poor little child is going through every single day, terrified for her life?” he said. “Death. Death in my head is an easier option.”