Inside the Goldberg-Polins’ whirlwind trip to Washington

The parents of American-Israeli hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin pressed their case to President Biden in person last week, while meeting with other congressional leaders

Rachel Goldberg-Polin has a moment from her childhood, sometime between 1979 and 1980, etched in her memory. She had gone to sleep, but woke up after a couple of hours. Her father was watching Ted Koppel host that evening’s edition of ABC’s “Nightline.” 

In the corner of the screen was a number — marking the days that dozens of Americans, including embassy personnel, were held captive in Iran after a violent coup that overthrew the Shah. 

“He explained to me,” she recalled, “‘Oh, these people are being held hostage’ and what it meant to be held hostage.”

Forty-four years later, Rachel wears her own number, marking the days that her son, Hersh, has been held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. On the day she and her husband, Jon Goldberg-Polin, spoke to Jewish Insider by Zoom from their home in Jerusalem, both wore masking tape on their shirts, the number 233 written in marker, marking 233 days since their son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, was taken hostage by Hamas — 233 days since he went to a party in the desert, 233 days since he and his friend got trapped in a bomb shelter, 233 days since Hersh’s left arm was severed below the elbow when more than half a dozen grenades were lobbed into that shelter, 233 days since those who survived the grenades were piled into a truck and taken to Gaza along with more than 200 other hostages.

“I’m tired of all these journalists saying to me, ‘What day is it?’ Rachel told JI. “I said, ‘I’m now going to be like Ted Koppel and ‘Nightline,’ and I’m going to wear this every day, like, ‘Hello, my name is and this is going to be my identity.’ So from Day 26 until now, I’ve been wearing on my chest for more than 200 days, ‘Hello, my name is 233 today.’ Every day my name changes.”


One thing that has not changed has been Rachel and Jon’s work to secure the release of Hersh, their only son and the older brother to two sisters. The two had just returned from Washington, their 10th visit since the Hamas terror attacks of Oct. 7 turned their world upside down. 

Over their repeated trips to the U.S., the Goldberg-Polins have built up a number of allies in the House and Senate, a group of legislators “who are trying to be helpful to us. They know us. They’re emotionally invested,” Rachel said. Among them: Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Mark Warner (D-VA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Joni Ernst (R-IA). They also met with former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican running for retiring Sen. Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) seat.

Even as the war becomes increasingly divisive in the run-up to the presidential election in the U.S., and as the hostage issue becomes increasingly politicized among hostage families in Israel, the couple has chosen to keep politics out of their fight. It’s a message they said they have conveyed to every American politician with whom they’ve met. “We said, ‘Don’t fall into letting this be politicized,’” Jon said. “It is an election year, it is kind of inevitable, but these are human beings. These are eight Americans.”

Ernst told JI that she had met with the Goldberg-Polins “nearly a dozen times” since Oct. 7, including during her trips to Israel in January and April.

“Both of them have been leading voices on the hostage issue and have been focused on finding resolution in the face of the ongoing conflict. Hersh is incredibly blessed to have such tireless advocates for parents,” the Iowa senator said.

Warner said that he has been “repeatedly amazed by Jon and Rachel’s courage and their unwavering commitment to their son Hersh and all of the hostages. We must do everything we can to bring them home.”

Coons told JI that the Goldberg-Polins “are doing absolutely everything they can to try and mobilize support for the release of the hostages and support hostage families.”

Hogan described Rachel after their meeting as “Hersh’s courageous advocate,” writing on X that, “The United States must never leave our citizens behind. In the Senate, I will do everything in my power to bring Hersh and all Americans who are being held hostage home.”

Hours after the Goldberg-Polins landed in Washington last week, the White House learned of their visit, and extended an invitation to that evening’s Jewish American Heritage Month celebration in the Rose Garden. President Joe Biden mentioned Hersh in his address, which Rachel called “very kind and unexpected.” 

Prior to the president’s public remarks, he met privately with a group of special guests, including the Goldberg-Polins. They had spoken to the president twice prior by Zoom, but never in person. In the two minutes she had, Rachel appealed to Biden as a parent who had lost a child; the president’s oldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015.

“I said to him, ‘I understand from everyone in Washington that you’re probably the most family-centric person in this city,” Rachel said. “And I said, ‘And I know that you can appreciate that Hersh changed me from being a daughter, a woman, a friend, a wife, into a mother, and that there’s a very magical thing that happens to a human being when you become a parent.’ And I said to him — and I put my hand on his chest — and I said, ‘It’s like when Beau was born for you, and he changed you from being a man, a husband, a son, into a father.’”

She continued: “I said, ‘And I know you have a special place in your heart for Beau and you can understand my special place for Hersh. I need for you to get him back. And I need for you to get them all back.’ And he put his hands on my face. And you know, he’s notorious for getting a little teary. And he said, ‘We’re gonna do every single thing we can to get them all home.’”

Relatives of U.S. citizens that are missing since Saturday’s surprise attack by Hamas militants near the Gaza border, in Tel Aviv, Israel attend a news conference on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Seated from left: Jonathan Dekel-Chen, father of Sagui Dekel-Chen (35) from Nahal Oz; Ruby Chen, father of Itay Chen, 19, a soldier in the armored corps; Ayala Neta, daughter, and Nahal Neta, son of Adrienne Neta, 66, a nurse living in Kibbitz Be’eri; Rachel Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, who was attending the music festival, and Jonathan Polin, Hersh’s father.

Unlike the daily spotlight ABC’s “Nightline” threw on the Iranian hostage crisis, including the ever-present counter in the corner of the screen, the hostages are not front and center in conversations in the U.S. In many debates over the war — including statements from legislators on Capitol Hill — hostages are entirely removed from the conversation, despite eight, including Hersh, who hold American citizenship. 

“This is also an American story,” Jon said. “America is not simply an objective mediator stepping in to help out here. On Oct. 7, 45 American citizens were killed [and] 12 were taken hostage. Eight remain in captivity. And I think a lot of Americans don’t really know that.”

The fates of three of the other American hostages — Itay Chen, Gad Haggai and Judy Weinstein, all of whom were believed to have been killed on Oct. 7 before their bodies were taken to the enclave — are known; Hamas released a video of American-Israeli hostage Keith Siegel in April. 

Also last month, Hamas released a three-minute video of Hersh. It was the first indication that he was still alive; no hostages who had been released or rescued had seen Hersh in Gaza. 

The initial tensions the Goldberg-Polins faced — the pull between relief at seeing him alive versus the pain of seeing him in a compromised state — have dissipated as they’ve spoken to other hostage families who have had no sign of life from their loved ones in Gaza. 

Rachel had previously pictured her son as he was when he left their home on Oct. 6 to meet his friend. But now, she says, “when I talk to him every day, when I bless him every day, I am blessing him wearing that jumpsuit. I’m blessing him with that haircut. I’m blessing him with that very, very pale skin and bruised forehead. And I’m blessing him with one arm.”


Hersh and the other seven Americans are among the 125 hostages who remain in captivity amid successive attempts by the U.S., Qatar and Egypt to mediate an agreement between Israel and Hamas that frees some of the hostages in exchange for a cessation in violence and the release of hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian prisoners. CIA Director Bill Burns, Mossad head David Barnea and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani were in Paris over the weekend for negotiations, weeks after a senior Egyptian intelligence official was found to have presented an unapproved agreement to Hamas, which the terror group accepted and Israel rejected. 

Earlier this month, Jon offered a longshot suggestion that hostage families and Gazan parents be among those participating in the negotiations, citing the lack of progress that experienced mediators had made. No hostages have been released in nearly six months, since an agreement that exchanged 100 hostages for a week-long cease-fire and 240 Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

“It’s too many days of not having results,” Jon said. “And that’s what it comes down to is these mediators. They go into a room, they talk, they come out of the room, they spend time talking about whether they should go back into the room.”

“Before we got to this idea, we were saying, ‘Why are they allowed out of the room?’ Go into a room, get room service, we’ll slip you everything you need under the door, just don’t leave the room without a deal. Your people suffering, end their suffering and if it means that you’ve got to be in a room for an extra few hours or sleep uncomfortably or eat whatever, be uncomfortable. There are lots of other people who are uncomfortable, right? So that was a thought a while ago, and then it just evolved into ‘Forget that, just get us in the room.’”

But, they said, there’s a key difference between veteran diplomats and negotiators and those calling loudest for a cease-fire and hostage release.

“The issue is the people who are in the room don’t have someone in the tunnels,” Rachel said bluntly. ‘But also they don’t have someone who’s in Gaza, who’s in you know, rubble.”

Images from Gaza are less present in the Israeli press than in international media; many Israelis are less engaged with the kind of content from Gaza that floods the phones of college students and Gen Z activists. But the couple deeply empathizes with the suffering of Gazans.

“Being able to say I am extremely concerned for the innocent people, civilians who are suffering in Gaza, that’s one truth,” she said. “And you can also be worried about the innocent civilians in Gaza who were dragged there on October 7. They’re not mutually exclusive. … You don’t have to choose a side when you’re advocating for people who have no voice. And I think that that’s important because I think that this has been sculpted into a ‘Which team are you on.’ And I think that that is so tragic, and unjust and unfair.”


Despite the ticking count on their shirts, the Goldberg-Polins don’t count Hersh’s absence in terms of how long it’s been. Rachel said that Shabbat — when their team is off, when they are home, when they are singing Shabbat zmirot, is an especially painful time.

“[Shabbat] forces us to stop and actually have to take measure, take account of what we’ve done this week. … In the beginning, we would go into bed at night after 20 hours of working and say, ‘Ugh, we’re such failures. He’s not home yet. They’re not home yet.’ And at a certain point, we changed into saying, we would get into bed and say, ‘Did we do every single thing possible today?’”

But as they count the days since Hersh has been gone, they don’t count the weeks, or the Shabbatot. Even that is too painful.

“We’re so raw and we have third degree burns all over our souls, that it really is excruciating if somebody is piling onto that pain. So I finally said to people, ‘Please stop telling me how many Shabbatot it’s been. And then I started to do that in my mind: It’s one Shabbat closer to him coming home.”

JI’s congressional correspondent Emily Jacobs contributed to this story.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.