Survivors of Hamas Massacre at Nova Music Festival Struggle to Rejoin Life 

“It’s not a normal trauma,” says the lead therapist at a retreat to help the young attendees

Nova Festival Memorial site Sharon Israel
Nova Festival Memorial (Photo by Sharon Waxman)

OJAI, California — In a circular room drenched in winter sunlight, a group of young men and women sit cross-legged on the floor. Their eyes are mostly closed. Some lie down prone. Others enlace one another in grief. 

A woman with long hair, barefoot, picks up a guitar: “You’ll be like a bird flying, free,” she sings. “And I will be a sun to the world….” 

Together, the voices swell in the room. They are safe here. 


For a week, 120 survivors of the Hamas attack on the Nova Music Festival in southern Israel came to a campground in Southern California to breathe new air, build community and find the path into the rest of their lives. 

Most of them are in their 20s and have been through a trauma that may take a lifetime to heal. Early on Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists descended upon the psy-trance music festival and stalked, chased, massacred, raped, mutilated and kidnapped them and their friends. 

An estimated 360 young men and women were killed at the festival that day, and dozens kidnapped. The survivors number in the many hundreds. 

Those who emerged alive — like Danielle Sassi, a young mother who went to the festival with seven family members and returned with just one — are shattered in ways most of us cannot imagine. Others, like a female police officer who was shot multiple times in the leg, struggles despite meeting at the retreat festival attendees whose lives she’d saved. In a brief chat with this reporter, she sprang from a chair, startled, when an engine revved behind her. 

Some suffer from ongoing physical injuries. Some still have friends or family who are hostages in Gaza. Shame, guilt and fear are common. Many know of survivors who have taken their own lives since Oct. 7. 

“It’s not a normal trauma,” said Guy Svili, an Israeli specialist who led the group therapy session and works with trauma survivors in Israel through his group, Ruach Adama. “It’s a brush with evil. Some had friends cut into pieces. For some, the desire to live is gone. The shadow of death has been put in their heads.” The survivors’ organization declined to discuss details around any suicides.

He spoke after the session on a grassy hill, as groups of young people – once united by a love of music and the freedom of a rave – relax. One wanders the grounds with a parrot on her shoulder. An emotional support dog patters behind. Many have tattoos, or smoke or vape. An impromptu group sings “Hotel California” in the sun. Many of those at the retreat arrived not knowing anyone else from the festival.  

Psy-trance is a tight knit global community of psychedelic ravers that extends to dozens of countries, including the Netherlands, Brazil, Portugal and India. The Supernova Sukkot Gathering, named after the Jewish holiday, was an Israeli offshoot of the Universo Paralello (Parallel Universe) festival brand started in Brazil more than 20 years ago. One of the Brazilian’s company’s founders, Juarez Petrillo, the DJ Swarup — who is the father of superstar Brazilian DJ Alok — was on the roster of performers at Supernova. He was reportedly about to begin his set when the massacre began. His son Alok later said on social media that the police evacuated his father as the assault began.

These young people were not so lucky.

“They’re very young,” Svili went on. “The Nova community are very much individuals – they’re all about love and freedom. There’s something symbolic here – they were thousands of people seeking love and music –  and the worst thing happens to them. Their healing from such an extreme experience represents a lot of hope.”


NEGEV, Israel — A stiff wind whips through a forest of photos on the grounds where Nova took place. The Nova campgrounds were once simply a public park near the Kibbutz Re’im a few kilometers from the Gaza border, with nature trails and glades of trees and plenty of open space for a psy-trance rave. 

Nova Festival Memorial site Sharon Israel
Nova Festival Memorial site (Photo by Sharon Waxman)

Today it is a makeshift memorial, marked by the photos on long stands, each representing a murdered or kidnapped person. Tamar Goldberg, with dark hair and a wide grin. Guy Gilboa-Dalal, 22 – “bring him home now” says the sign. A couple lost: “In memory of Amit ben Avida and Karen Schwartzman.” And Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, the young man whose hand was blown off by tossing grenades out of the shelter where dozens of young people had hidden. “Bring him home now.” Too many to count. 

To look around is to imagine what it was like just six months ago, on Oct. 7. At around 6 a.m., a hail of missiles rained down on the fields beside the festival, and about 3,000 bewildered festivalgoers, most of whom had arrived just a couple of hours earlier, looked around and wondered what to do next. 

“Rockets start flying in the air,” said Ben Landau, a festivalgoer in an interview published on YouTube. “At the beginning we see five rockets. Then we see dozens, hundreds, thousands of rockets are in the air,” he said. At first he thought he and his friends might be safe, still. “From the stories about Iron Dome we feel protected in that moment. But we understood the party won’t continue.” 

Nova Memorial DJ Sharon Israel
Nova Memorial DJ (Photo by Sharon Waxman)

The festivalgoers were fish in a barrel. Some including Landau fled to their cars, creating a massive traffic jam. Some found a brief hiding spot in concrete shelters with open sides. Some began to move toward the road, or hide in bushes, or run down a dried out river bed. Others just began to run in a panic across an open field as hundreds of terrorists arrived on foot behind the missile attack, shooting as they went. 

Almost all of them called their parents, and many stayed on the line for hours as they raced to find a way out of the death trap. In speaking to survivors, you realize that the massacre did not happen all at once. In many instances the festival goers tried one way out, changed cars, ran on foot or might have hid under a bush. In some instances they thought they were safe, only to be stalked by Hamas militants an hour later and killed. Or kidnapped. Or worse. Witnesses including festivalgoer Raz Cohen describe at least one gang rape of a young woman who was then stabbed to death. It was not the only sexual assault. 

The makeshift memorial underscores the pure senselessness of the tragedy. It has no profound message, no stakes to claim, no message to teach. 

The faces of the victims seem profoundly innocent and full of joy. They came to dance. 


Romi Gonen and her friend Gaia at the Nova Music Festival
Romi Gonen and her friend Gaia at the Nova Music Festival (Photo courtesy of Yarden Gonen)
Nova Festivalgoers a few hours before Hamas attacked.
Nova Festivalgoers a few hours before Hamas attacked. (Courtesy of Nitzan Farham)

TEL AVIV — Romi Gonen, a 23-year-old from a northern Israeli village called Kfar Vradim (Village of Roses), had been traveling in South America for seven months when she was introduced to psy-trance music in Brazil. She’d been to Peru, Colombia — and then fell in love with the festival scene. 

One of five siblings, Gonen was the one who always got in trouble. “She’s a smiley person, goofy, clumsy,’” said her older sister Yarden. “Everything bad happens to her — it’s the family joke. She got Covid three times.”

After the trip abroad where she learned to speak Spanish, Romi moved to Tel Aviv and worked in a restaurant as a waitress. She loved new cultures and when the Nova festival was announced, she cancelled a planned trip to Sri Lanka to make sure she could go. 

She went with her best friend Gaia. 

Asleep in Romi’s bed at home, Yarden’s phone rang at 6:40 a.m. on Oct. 7. “I almost ignored it. At the last minute I thought, ‘Maybe something’s wrong.’” It was Romi. “Is everything ok?” Yarden asked. “Actually – no,” said Romi, describing the missiles that were falling nearby. 

Over the next three hours they stayed on the phone, plotting how to escape the dragnet. Afraid to go to her car, Romi found a temporary security shelter. 

“You don’t understand,” she told her sister. “There are so many rockets. It’s raining rockets. The trees are on fire.” 

The family turned on the television and saw bands of terrorists in cars all over southern Israel on the news. In nearby Sderot, CCTV cameras showed Hamas fighters, 10 astride in pick up trucks, wielding automatic weapons. 

“We were shocked,” said Yarden. Shocked at the boldness. “They were saying: ‘We are here to terrorize you.’” 

Meanwhile, Romi had gotten to her car and was trying to get to the main road. But the car park was jammed. Suddenly Yarden heard her sister say: “Why are all those people running toward us?” Gaia drove the car while her friend’s father helped them navigate through a dry river bed. Once again they saw people running toward the car. 

“I pleaded with her, ‘Stay in the car.’ But people were screaming, ‘Get the fuck out of the car. Terrorists will kill you! They’re dressed like (Israeli) army. They’re killing us!” They got out of the car and began to run, hiding in a bush. 

Still on the phone but losing reception, Romi asked her sister: What should I do now? Yarden had no answers. “It was so frustrating,” she said. “I can do nothing to help her. Just be with her on the phone.” 

Yarden Gonen Nova survivor Sharon Israel
Yarden Gonen, Nova survivor (Photo by Sharon Waxman)

More gunshots. Getting closer now. 

“Do you see the police? The army?” 

“No. I see a lot of dead people.”

Finally at 10 a.m., Romi called their father and said a friend had come to rescue them. “I was so relieved,” said Yarden. “I was so happy she was with Gaia.”

But 10 minutes after that, their mother got a call from Romi. She and her friends had been ambushed. The car was broken. The driver was dead. Gaia was shot and had stopped answering her. Romi was shot in her arm and was bleeding. 

The next few minutes devolved in slow motion. “In the last 10 minutes, Romi was not speaking. We heard terrorists talking (in Arabic) and shots fired. They opened the door and tried to start the car.”

Suddenly, Yarden heard a scratching noise and then one word in English: “Stop.” The call ended. Later she had a friend translate the Arabic discussion which was: We have two girls. One alive, one dead. And then a discussion over whether to kill Romi or take her to Gaza. 

Romi is currently a hostage in Gaza. Gaia died.  

Yarden works tirelessly to keep her sister’s fate in front of the media. “I have no idea if my sister still has her hand,” said Yarden, noting that released hostages reported seeing her sister with the hand badly wounded and her fingers discolored. 

“Some days I wake up optimistic. But I feel I can’t rest until they (hostages) will all be here. It doesn’t matter if I’m tired, or upset or hopeless. Our mission is to keep fighting.”

“This is a fight between the people of the free world and terrorism,” Yarden said. “The music community should be more vocal, more aware. The psy-trance community has the feeling of a tribe. If this happens at a music festival, with 30 different countries affected, it can happen anywhere. No music festival is safe. Wake up. Be with us on this.”

TheWrap reached out to organizers of the Nova Festival but did not receive a reply.


During the Ojai retreat, which was funded by private donations, the activities in addition to group and private therapy included an art project, ropes and rock-climbing, hiking, yoga — all with volunteers who were trained in trauma work. 

Therapy went on every day for a week. The young adults here have, for the most part, stopped working since Oct. 7 . Their professions ranged from students, to medical workers, to lawyers to social workers. The hope is that they will be able to pick up the threads of their lives and move forward.

The retreat was the brainchild of American Jewish educator Karin Heprin from Orange County, who at first wanted to connect Israeli adolescents with American kids, but was told that the more urgent need was for Nova and other survivors to leave Israel and get a break. 

“We went into this not exactly sure what we were going to accomplish,” she said. “My hope would be that they could reclaim their pre Oct. 7 identity, their hopes and dreams. We hoped it would be a good thing. But it could also be triggering or be hard for them.” 

At Svili’s group therapy, he solicited input: What do you fear? he asked. The answers were called out: “My own thoughts.” “What my parents think.”

A woman named Talli sang a song she wrote about fear. “My fears are holding me back,” she sang, teaching the words and tune to the room. 

A young man came to the front of the room to share. On Oct. 7, he said, he and a girlfriend were chased by terrorists, and as they ran he feared they might be caught. He was not afraid to die, he said. Instead, as the men drew closer he feared what would happen to his friend if she were captured. And he thought that it might be his responsibility to kill her, to prevent her falling into their hands. 

“I asked myself, ‘What is the right thing to do?” he asked. “Should you kill the person you love?” Given the evidence that has emerged about rape of women at the festival, his fears were not ill-founded. 

This fear still haunts him, he said. Several people in the group began to weep.

During a final song, Rani Pondak — a Sufi-influenced psychotherapist dressed in white — stood in the middle of the circle and whirled slowly, like a dervish. 

“I know this will bring a change for good,” said Svili. “That’s how it works. Like a phoenix — it rises from darkness. How it is happening, I don’t know. When – I don’t know. It takes time. But we have to believe this. Perhaps we have no choice.”


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