“We Felt Each and Every Prayer”: YU Hears from Keren and Eli Schem 

By: Chloe Baker  |  March 27, 2024

By Chloe Baker, Features Editor 

Former Israeli hostage Mia Schem’s survival story is nothing short of miraculous. With so many little nuanced details and intricate pieces that filled her 55 day long ordeal in Gaza, it is truly amazing that she came out alive. She is the epitome of a strong woman. “What kept her was her Emunah. Her Emunah in herself and her Emunah in Gd” said her mother, Keren Schem. 

As the seventh-floor Beit Midrash overflowed with attendees, it became evident that the “Mia Schem at Beren ” event would be one of the largest turnouts the school has seen. “We think it was the largest turnout to an all women’s event in Beren’s history” said Rabbi Azi Fine. Every seat was filled, and even at maximum capacity, students still waited outside, hoping to join. “The fact that 30 minutes before the event started there were no more seats left, and standing room only, was really just a testament to how our student body is still actively engaged in thinking about our brothers and sisters in Israel,” said Rabbi Fine. Because of the overwhelming turnout, students and faculty relocated to the Koch Auditorium, hoping it would accommodate everyone. Even there, the hall was packed to the brim, with students enthusiastically showing their love and support for Mia and the Schem family.

However, the evening took a turn when Rav Shay Schachter announced that Mia would no longer be speaking at Beren. Due to the trauma and horrors Mia experienced as a hostage, recalling those memories and telling her story proved extremely difficult. Nevertheless, we had the privilege of hearing from her mother, Keren, and brother, Eli, who shared their harrowing yet hopeful perspective as family members of a hostage in Gaza. 

On October 7, Mia attended the NOVA Music Festival with her friend Elia Toledano (who was killed and kidnapped on October 7). Around 6:30 AM when the rockets started, the pair left the festival site and drove for around 30 minutes. They were then ambushed by terrorists, who shot at the car, but Mia kept driving. Once they shot the wheels, Mia and Elia had to step out of the car. They shot Mia from very close range, and part of her arm was almost disconnected from her body. The terrorists took Elia, and Mia grabbed her arm and hid. Her car had been bombed and set on fire, and she had nowhere to go. After 20 minutes, she saw someone coming through the line of burnt down cars. She asked the man for help to which he replied in Arabic “come.” She was then approached by other terrorists, dragged by her hair into a car and kidnapped. When she later arrived, she was told “Welcome to Gaza.” “Mia had two options. She could have stayed in the burning car, or gone with the terrorist. She chose life. To believe that she would be okay and go with him,” said Keren. 

After arriving in Gaza, her injured arm was tied up in plastic, and she was locked in a dark room in a civilian apartment for three days without any medication, bandages or food. Eventually, her arm was operated on. “When she woke up, they took her right back into the apartment she was being held in. She didn’t know what time it was. Whether it was day or night. She was afraid of being raped or killed. She had no food or no water,” recounted Keren. 

While in captivity, Mia devised various strategies to save herself. When using the bathroom, she extended her arm out of the window, hoping someone would recognize her distinctive tattoos. Although forbidden to speak, she repeated her name to herself in the hopes that someone would hear. “Mia had many tests she experienced when she was in captivity,” said Eli. He then went on to describe a story that his sister shared with him: “When Mia was in Gaza, she had three songs she would sing to herself in her head all day. One Friday, her captor let her listen to the radio, and all three songs that she would sing in her head played on the radio.” Keren added, “All of these songs were about Emunah” For Mia, this was just another sign that one day she would get out. 

Describing their experience with a family member in Gaza, Keren and Eli emphasized, “Even when we knew nothing about her, whether she was alive or dead, we always believed she was alive.” They left no stone unturned in their efforts to raise awareness and secure Mia’s release, utilizing social media platforms, attending delegations, and meeting with lawmakers. “We did all in our power, and I had many miracles,” said Keren. 

On November 30, 54 days after her kidnapping, Mia Schem was released as part of the 105 hostages released during a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. “When we found out she was being released, it was a crazy moment in our house. My mom fainted and I broke half the house,” said Eli. Since being released, Mia has been spending time in hospitals and rehab facilities to work on recovering, and doctors told her she did a “very good job of taking care of herself” while in captivity. “She would open her fingers all the time and did her own physical therapy,” Keren explained. Now, Mia has been in the United States advocating for the release of all the other hostages, as well as attending events such as president Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address and The Oscars. 

Keren concluded by speaking about the uniqueness of the Jewish nation by saying, “We feel that all Jewish people are connected. I think that’s one of the reasons why the world hates us. Because we’re something that others don’t have, and we don’t take that for granted. We felt each and every prayer. I think that’s what makes us unique.” 

Students from the Beren Campus expressed immense gratitude for hearing from Keren and Eli. This event was a turning point, and left an indelible mark on the student body. “Hearing Mia’s mom and brother speak made the whole war since October 7 come to life. It was so painful to hear of the horrors Mia went through but also so empowering to see them standing here and speak with smiles and endless gratitude on their faces. It was truly an honor and privilege,” said Noa Terenyo (SCW ‘26). 

Mia and her family said they felt the prayers of all of Am Yisrael, and they believe our prayers were one of the many things that enabled Mia to survive this treacherous chapter in her life. Let’s not forget why we are praying, and why we are fighting – to get all of the hostages home and rejoice together as a complete family. 

Photo credit to Bina Goldman (SCW ‘26)