With help from her Dallas community, Israeli teacher reunites her class after student released from Hamas captivity

Jewish Agency emissary Aya Margalit in Texas vowed to visit Erez Calderon after he was taken hostage on Oct. 7; this week, she made it happen

To the neighbor, it was just a bunch of kids being loud and stinking up her yard doing an art project with spray paint outside her apartment building. “It’s really hard to work with all this noise,” she yelled at them, peeking her head up over the fence.

What she didn’t know was that this was no normal midday party for 12-year-olds. The Sunday gathering was the first time that the 6B class of Shachar Eshkol Elementary School — a community school for the towns throughout the Eshkol region near the southern Gaza border — had gotten together in over three months, since the Oct. 7 terror attacks upended their lives. Every member of the class — who came from some of the hardest-hit communities in the Hamas attacks, including Kibbutz Nir Oz, Kibbutz Holit and Kibbutz Nir Yizhak — lost family members, friends or, as often, both.

Following the attacks, the various communities were evacuated and the members were scattered across the country — some to hotels by the Dead Sea, some to Tel Aviv and others to the Eilat area.

What brought them back together on Sunday morning was a vow that their former teacher, Aya Margalit, had made to the mother of Erez Calderon, 12, who was kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7, along with his father, Ofer, and 16-year-old sister, Sahar. Erez and Sahar were released in November by Hamas as part of a deal between the terror group and the Israeli government. Their father remains in captivity.

In August, Margalit, along with her husband and three children, traveled from their community of Nir Yizhak to Dallas to spend the year as a Jewish Agency emissary, the senior community shlicha at the city’s Temple Emanu-El. She was there on Oct. 7, watching from afar as her community and the communities of her students were overrun by terrorists, and her family has remained in Dallas since the attacks.

“When Erez was in captivity, I told his mother, Hadas, that when Erez came back, I would be there. I vowed a vow,” Margalit said using the Hebrew term, neder, referring to an oath that effectively cannot be broken.

“Once he was released, I told her and him, that whenever he is ready, I’d be there. A few days later, he wrote in the class WhatsApp group, ‘Aya are you coming to visit?’ I said, ‘Do you want me to?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So I started planning to come,” Margalit told eJewishPhilanthropy.

She bought a plane ticket, which the Temple Emanu-El community paid for, and set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for a party for the class.

When she hit that goal, Margalit started raising additional funds for students’ families that were struggling financially because of the war, which has devastated the local economy.

For her former students, Oct. 7 is “a nightmare that won’t end,” Margalit said. They have lost family, friends and homes, and now most of them are still displaced.

“I knew that when Erez came back, that I wanted to do something to bring them together,” she said. “I’m not their teacher anymore, but I’m with them forever.”

Margalit landed in Israel last Friday. She came alone, deciding that this trip was going to be focused on her students and on connecting her Dallas community to her home community of Nir Yizhak, and the Gaza border region more generally. Coming with her family, she said, would have been far too difficult.

The party on Sunday was held at the spacious Tel Aviv garden apartment of a friend who asked to remain nameless.

Shortly after everyone else arrived, Margalit went out to meet Erez Calderon and bring him in to meet the rest of his class, who huddled around the front door, waiting for their friend, who had spent 52 days in Hamas captivity.

Aya Margalit (right) and her former class welcome her former student, Erez Calderon, who was taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7 and released on Nov. 27, to a party in Tel Aviv on Jan. 7, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/eJewishPhilanthropy)

Calderon was greeted with hugs and high fives and claps on the back. In a group photo, he was honored with having the class mascot — a green pencil sharpener; it’s an inside joke — placed on his head.

The party was “catered” by residents of the apartment building, who made pasta dishes, stews, homemade breads, pastries, roasted vegetables and cheeses.

“One of the mothers came up to me and said, ‘The best part is that there’s home-cooked food, not the food we have every day in the hotels,'” Margalit said.

Though they picked a bit at the home-cooked fare, as 12-year-olds, the kids first went straight for the dessert cart that had been hired for the party, loading up plates of ice cream and crepes with chocolate sauce, mini-marshmallows and other candies.

Aya Margalit’s former students play volleyball at a party in Tel Aviv on Jan. 7, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/eJewishPhilanthropy)

Beyond over-satisfying their sweet tooths, the 22 members of Shachar Eshkol’s 6B class generally acted as the sixth graders that they are. They played backyard volleyball, making up rules as they went; the boys and girls self-segregated by gender; they joked and rough-housed and laughed and hugged and squealed and showed off their new shoes.

For the adults, the reunion was far more visibly difficult. As the kids played, the parents who attended stood off to the side, laughing and joking and catching up with one another too, but also occasionally breaking down in tears.

After the volleyball game and ice cream, the host brought out a box of disposable coveralls, spray paints, templates and enormous sheets of paper. Each kid was able to make their own graffiti-style poster, signed using a custom-made stencil of their names (despite the discomfort of the host’s neighbor).

“It was a healing event. It brought back hope. It reminded me of what we had,” Margalit said.

“The hardest thing [about Oct. 7] is that these kids were ripped out of their childhood,” she said, noting that this class had also gone through the COVID-19 pandemic, having school through Zoom or missing it entirely.

“They are all going through so much right now, and they are doing it all in a new world,” Margalit said. “They [would normally] spend most of their time in school and then go to after-school clubs with the same kids, and now they don’t see each other at all.”

And yet, she said, when they met up on Sunday, it was like no time had passed at all. “They immediately went back to doing what they were doing before,” Margalit said. “They didn’t want it to end. They kept asking to stay longer and longer and longer.”

“A kid from my class, who lost his father and his uncle and his cousin, was able to come today and smile, and his mother thanked me that we were able to do this and told me how important it was and how much it moves her — that’s an honor, that’s my mission,” Margalit said.

Aya Margalit hugs one of her students from a Gaza border town at a party in Tel Aviv on Jan. 7, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/eJewishPhilanthropy)

Reflecting on the day, Margalit said that it was “moving, flooding me with emotions, but it was also difficult. I didn’t try to show it, but it was very hard, having all of those feelings together.”

Margalit, who returns to the U.S. next week, said it has been one of the most “complicated” things for her to have been in the U.S. when the Oct. 7 attacks happened and to have remained there since.

“It’s very hard for me that I wasn’t with them, that I’m not with them now, but I am glad that I could bring them together and that the parents brought them together. Some woke up before dawn in order to be there today,” she said.

Margalit, who spoke to eJP earlier in the war about her experiences, said she almost didn’t go to Dallas because of how hard it would be to leave her class, which  she’d been with since second grade, but ultimately decided to go ahead with the plan. Margalit, who had served as a Jewish Agency shlicha at a summer camp in the U.S. in 2001 and spent a year as a child in Wisconsin when her parents came to be emissaries for the Weizmann Institute, is the first shlicha that her Dallas community had ever had.

“I was creating a new position in that community,” Margalit said.

“I hadn’t accomplished much [before Oct. 7]. We arrived and got settled, and then it was the High Holy Days, which were my first introduction to the community. We were just starting to recognize faces, and then on Erev Simchat Torah, everything happened,” she said.

A few hours after getting home from synagogue, Margalit said her phone — which still had the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command app on it — started going off.

“From the number of sirens, I understood that something serious was happening,” she said.

Throughout the night, Margalit was glued to her phone, watching her community’s WhatsApp group, speaking to students in her class’ group — it’s called “Aya’s loves” — and privately.

“They start writing what’s happening to them, that they are scared, that they hear voices, that they hear terrorists,” Margalit said. She tried to reassure them that everything would be OK, that they would be safe, that they should do whatever they needed to stay calm.

It was through WhatsApp that she learned that Calderon, who lived on Kibbutz Nir Oz, had been kidnapped. “I messaged Erez, and there was no answer,” she recalled.

After Oct. 7, her job in Dallas changed. She was no longer working to develop a general connection among community members to the State of Israel. She was now representing her community and her region, and people’s lives were on the line.

“The connection that I thought was just getting started and needed to be built and developed was suddenly incredibly powerful, especially for a community that had never had shlichim before,” she said.

Members of the Dallas community organized a meal train for Margalit’s family and reached out to see how they could help. “Everyone hugged us tight,” she said.

Though it was emotionally difficult for her to be so far from home, Margalit said it has been her “privilege for me to be in a position to fight for my community.”

“If we were at home, we would have just been another family that went through hell. Now, I can be much more effective,” she said.

In Dallas, Margalit helped organize clothing drives, fundraising efforts, a Hanukkah program and other activities connecting the Texas city to Nir Yizhak.

“It’s the greatest privilege that I can have in my life to be this bridge between [Dallas] and Nir Yizhak,” she said. “It’s my calling, it’s my role, it’s my time, and I’m here to serve.”

While in Israel, Margalit plans to visit her community, which has been relocated to Eilot, a kibbutz just north of Eilat, and spend time with her parents and family. For the end of her trip, she will help lead a delegation from Dallas, which is scheduled to meet with survivors and the families of hostages.

She will then bring the delegation to her Eshkol region, where they will visit Kibbutz Be’eri and her hometown of Nir Yizhak. Five members of the kibbutz were murdered in the Oct. 7 massacres and eight people were taken hostage, five of whom were later released. Last month, a member of the kibbutz’s emergency response team, Tal Chaimi, who was initially thought to be missing, was determined to have been killed on Oct. 7; his body was taken captive.

Before the Oct. 7 attacks, Margalit said she had “dreamed of bringing people from my [Dallas] community to the kibbutz.

“I wanted to show them that even though we live in the Gaza periphery, it’s heaven. I never imagined I’d bring them to an empty kibbutz,” she said.

“I am sure that it will be very challenging for me [to visit Nir Yizhak]. There are people watching the houses, working in the cowsheds and the fields, but the community is empty,” Margalit said. “It will be difficult, but it will be important.”