Calgary couple bears witness via Shurat HaDin Mission

By Regan Treewater

(AJNews) – Journalistic objectivity is a hallmark of the profession, and a standard that the greater public depends on from their news-media. I have begun to find it increasingly challenging to achieve this ideal of pure objectivity in my writings related to Israel since October 7, 2023. As time marches steadily forward and hostages have not been returned to their families, it is difficult to find the correct words to give voice to stories that break my own heart so profoundly. In lieu, for this article, I can offer honesty – honesty that is absolutely saturated with passion for Israel and the Jewish people, without the patronizing deception of preformed objectivity.

Marty and Cathy Cole were in Israel recently as part of the Shurat HaDin Bearing Witness Mission. They shared some of their experiences with Alberta Jewish News.

On March 28, I had the opportunity to interview Calgarians, Dr. Marty Cole and his wife Cathy Cole, who recently traveled to Israel as part of “The Bearing Witness Mission” organized by Shurat HaDin and have returned to their home in Canada to carry on the monumental work to increase awareness of the brutality, carnage, and antisemitism of this century’s hideous modern-day pogrom. What they saw, and the survivor testimonies they heard will continue to haunt them, and in this way they, and other mission participants, will speak for and support those who continue to suffer. I have shed a quiet tear from time-to-time while conducting interviews. It is much easier to hide this over a phone call, but on this occasion, I could not conceal the quiver in my voice, or muffle my sniffles with any modicum of finesse. The experiences that the Coles recounted should be heard and prolifically shared.

During COVID Cathy occupied some of her time at home enriching her mind and soul with webinars and online activities. “Shurat HaDin was founded by an incredible woman named Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, and during COVID I participated in an online event she spoke at,” said Cathy. “I receive emails about their activities, and when I saw that they were organizing this mission to Israel, I right away told Marty that we needed to go. I had been wanting to return to Israel since October 7. I think we have all wanted to help in some way.”

Founded in 2003, Shurat HaDin is a non-government organization based in Israel that devotes its efforts to “bankrupting terrorism one lawsuit at a time,” by representing families of victims of terror. Marty is a recently retired physician, and Cathy has made an unofficial career of speaking out for Israel. Although neither of the Coles have a background in law,  “Shurat HaDin is focused on pursuing anti-terrorism efforts through the international legal system, but what this mission was about encompassed so much more,” explained Cathy.  “Nitsana and her team are tireless.  They’ve fought antisemitism in so many different forms around the world,” continued Marty. “Although we also found time to do volunteer work while in Israel, this was about helping us to bear witness so that we could share with our communities.”

While the couple traveled throughout Israel on a full coach-bus of Americans and British program participants, their daughter Rachel tracked their movements with the ‘FindMy’ app on her phone. “They have to scramble the GPS signals in parts of the country to prevent drone attacks,” explained Cathy. “So sometimes our GPS signal would show us in places like the Beirut-Rafic Al Hariri International Airport, resulting in a panicked phone call asking where we were.”

Initially this could be an amusing anecdote to share following their journey, but for Cathy and Marty, their daughter’s constant worry about their safety and whereabouts was just another reminder that so many still do not have answers about the welfare of their loved ones and have been forced for the last six months, to live in a constant state of anxiety.

Cathy Cole, with fellow Calgarian Suzi Dil, picking mandarins as part of their volunteer work on Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the communiites that was brutally attacked by Hamas in Southern Israel on October 7. Photo supplied.

This anxiety was a reality for Iris Haim whose son Yotam was sadly killed by friendly fire on December 15. After being held hostage for more than two months, he escaped along with 2 other hostages. Not being recognized, the 3 were killed. The Coles had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Haim during their trip and were moved by her resilience and compassion. Following her son’s tragic death, the grieving mother bore no hatred or anger.

“She invited the IDF soldiers who mistook her son for one of the terrorists to come to her home for a hug,” Cathy recounted emotionally. While speaking with Shurat HaDin, Mrs. Haim showed the group pictures of her handsome son with vibrant red hair. The first question asked by the group was how such a visibly Jewish young man could be mistaken for a terrorist. Mrs. Haim then explained to the group that her son’s captors had shaved his head to make him less recognizable and due to lice.

Cathy and Marty have traveled to Israel many times, but they knew that the somber tone of this trip meant that each day would be an emotional journey. “We met a young Rabbi who was doing his miluim service. He told us that prior to October 7 this usually meant kosher supervision, but now his work is seeing to the burial of victims.” Commented Cathy, “everyone is buried in a shroud of course, but unknown to us, military personnel are also laid to rest with their uniform.  The nature of this Rabbi’s miluim has changed dramatically.” Everyone has been affected, yet, somehow, the spirit of the nation endures despite those that would have it obliterated entirely.

Cathy and Marty still cannot speak about their trip to the site of the Nova Festival massacre without getting emotional. The memorial to those killed at the music festival was devastating in the number of young lives lost. There, they heard from Rami Davidian, his harrowing story. He was asked on the morning of October 7 to rescue a friend’s son. Word spread and by the end of the day, he had saved 750 people.

At Kfar Aza, they met a man whose daughter and boyfriend were murdered. The sight of the kibbutz home has been preserved as it was that day. The horror and shocking evidence of disarray and brutality with which its inhabitants were viciously murdered will remain ingrained in their memories always and reinforced the necessity of their mission.  They will now be able to share the reality of the aftermath they saw with their family, friends, and community.

They had an uplifting experience one afternoon, cooking lunch for the soldiers on the front lines. “These soldiers would much rather be home with their families, but they understand and accept their role in protecting Israel. Being able to feed them food that was prepared with love was important. Marty was out there barbecuing for them, others were chopping veggies, I think I was washing dishes; everyone wanted to contribute.”

Marty Cole at the barbecue, cooking lunch for soldiers on the front lines. Photo supplied

“We prayed at the Kotel on Shabbat,” said Cathy meaningfully.  “It was a very moving Shabbat for everyone.”  Marty continued: “And there must have been four or five Bar Mitzvahs at the hotel we stayed at that night in Jerusalem!” The Shurat HaDin group enjoyed a Shabbat meal together and reflected on all that they had witnessed. “Nitsana’s son serves in the IDF, but he had the evening off and joined us. It was a remarkable thing to see him lead us in the prayers with his gun strapped to his back. Obviously, I couldn’t take a picture, but I will always remember that,” Cathy commented.

After the mission concluded, Cathy and Marty volunteered in order to help where needed. They spent one day helping to pick strawberries.  “The agricultural industry in Israel needs people desperately,” Marty explained. “The farms depend on foreign workers, and so many left after October 7.” Cathy continued: “We picked strawberries with workers from Malawi. If people want to do something to help Israel, working on a farm is extremely critical right now.”

The Coles are also involved in projects in Northern Israel, through P2G and Calgary Jewish Federation. “There are 51,000 people from the Northern communities that are displaced as it isn’t safe,” she explained. “Prior to visiting the displaced Israelis in Tiberias, we found a toy store in Tel Aviv owned by Moti. We explained where we were going and that we wanted to give toys to children displaced from their homes. He was really touched by what we wanted to do and only charged us nominally so that we could bring some happiness to these kids. We left the store with armfuls to give away.”

I recently facilitated a discussion with university students about what motivates people to still visit sites like Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Treblinka, and Sobibor. Some found this to be macabre tourism. Others connected human stories to these sites, visiting them as a means of bearing witness and safeguarding history. Cathy and Marty have now been entrusted with the knowledge and stories of October 7 and its legacy. When asked what they hope to do with this knowledge now, Cathy said: “Well, we’ve only just returned, but hopefully we can put together some sort of presentation to share within the community. We strongly urge anyone interested in going to Israel to look up future Shurat Hadin missions as an option.”

As much as the Alberta Jewish community will benefit from hearing from them, I cannot help but think that what they have to say needs to be heard by a wider and more diverse audience, one that still manages to call terrorists freedom fighters, and that continues to post propaganda on social media.  If you run into Cathy or Marty, take a minute to stop and chat. They have a lot to tell you.

Regan Treewater is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.


Be the first to comment on "Calgary couple bears witness via Shurat HaDin Mission"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.