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News / Nation & World

Chicago truck driver raises awareness for childhood friend held hostage in Gaza

By Kate Armanini, Chicago Tribune
Published: June 9, 2024, 6:00am

CHICAGO — The box truck was parked beside a quiet sidewalk in Chicago’s West Loop. A few people stopped, glancing curiously at the image flashing on its rear door: a young man, his expression resolute but tinged with sadness. Below his figure was a message in bold letters: “Chicagoan kidnapped by Hamas.”

“He’s always up there,” said the truck’s driver, Jeremiah Smith, 27, as he stared at the image. “I always know that.”

Twelve hours a day, six days a week, Smith drives the truck through the Chicago area, raising awareness for the scores of Israeli hostages held captive by Hamas. But the man on the screen, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, is more than a distant figure.

To Smith, he’s like a brother. When Smith was 6 years old, he met Hersh’s grandmother, a tutor at his elementary school, and was taken under her wing. It’s a story of familial love, a bridge of backgrounds — stronger than ever as a war wages on.

“I wouldn’t want nobody else to drive the truck,” Smith said, clutching the Star of David around his neck. “I just want that guy to come home.”

‘I was always with Marcy’

Smith grew up in Cabrini-Green Homes, a public housing complex on Chicago’s Near North Side. His mother didn’t have a high school diploma, and his childhood was marked with violence. He saw his first dead body when he was 6.

“You have to grow up a little bit faster than what you want when you’re living in that situation,” Smith said. “I saw people getting in fights, people getting shot, people selling drugs.”

Smith wonders if he would have been swept up in the tumult of his childhood. But then Marcy Goldberg, Hersh’s grandmother, stepped into his life. She volunteered as a tutor in Smith’s first grade classroom at George Manierre Elementary.

“My teacher asked who wanted to go with her … I didn’t raise my hand because I didn’t care about, you know, going to class,” Smith said with a laugh. “But my teacher happened to pick me.”

The connection was instant. Marcy was struck by the playful, free-spirited child, and began to tutor him beyond their two-hour sessions at school. He visited her Gold Coast home on the weekends, joining her family for Shabbat dinner. It was his first brush with Jewish culture.

He lived with Marcy from seventh grade through high school. He remained close with his own mother, who was grateful for Marcy’s support.

“I was always with Marcy, everywhere she go,” said Smith. “I went out of town, I was with Marcy. Every family event, Passover, Hanukkah, I was with Marcy.”

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Smith met Hersh shortly after meeting his grandmother. At the mention of his friend, Smith rattles off a string of anecdotes from their childhood together. The pair’s upbringings were vastly different, but somewhere they found common ground.

“He couldn’t play basketball for nothing,” Smith added. “But that’s what I used to play. I’d have him on the basketball court the whole day. He’s like, ‘Just for you, I’m gonna keep running.’”

He even traveled with the family to Hersh’s bar mitzvah in Israel. Hersh didn’t know how to introduce Smith to their Israeli relatives, so he called him his “brother cousin uncle.”

“So that’s what everybody called me,” Smith said. “Hersh is just a funny kid.”

‘I’m amazed that he’s alive still’

Hersh’s parents, Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg, grew up in the Chicago area. After college, the couple moved to Berkeley, California, where their son was born. They relocated to Jerusalem in 2008.

Hersh, now 23, was kidnapped at the Tribe of Nova music festival in southern Israel during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, in which militants killed roughly 1,200 people and abducted about 250 more. Israeli officials say about 80 hostages, including Hersh, are still held captive in Gaza.

As Hamas stormed the Negev desert, Hersh was evacuated into a bomb shelter, but operatives threw nearly a dozen grenades inside. Video from the attack shows militants hauling Hersh and three other survivors into a pickup truck. In the footage, he sits in the vehicle dazed and bloodied. Part of his left arm was blown off.

After Hamas’ assault, Israel launched a war in the territory, displacing more than 1 million Palestinians. So far, more than 36,000 people have been killed in Gaza.

Hersh’s family had no idea if he was alive until April 24, when Hamas released a three-minute video of him in captivity. He sat before a bare wall under fluorescent lighting. His hand was missing, his head was shaved. Tears stained his face.

“I saw the video, and I cried because it was like, ‘I’m amazed that he’s alive still,’” Smith said. “I had given up hope.”

Hersh’s parents launched an international campaign, Bring Hersh Home, to raise awareness for the hostage crisis. They met President Joe Biden at the White House at the end of May.

“Do not stop reaching out to elected officials to make sure they are screaming at the top of their lungs,” Hersh’s father told the Tribune in October.

‘He’s just another one of my kids’

Standing beside the truck on a recent morning, Smith wore a shirt reading “Bring Them Home,” along with a pin emblazoned with his friend’s face. He always wears both when he drives.

Sometimes, he’ll park the vehicle at specific sites, such as the pro-Palestinian encampment at DePaul University before it was disbanded, or Union Station downtown. Other days, he’ll chart wandering routes through different neighborhoods.

People often approach Smith with an onslaught of hateful and derogatory comments, but most are just curious, he said. He tries not to get political. He just wants his friend back.

“I feel sorry for all the innocent people that were killed,” Smith said. “But I’m just here to spread awareness about all the hostages.”

The truck was concocted by Jeff Aeder, a close friend of Hersh’s family. Aeder was inspired after he saw a similar initiative at a pro-Palestinain demonstration, and he pooled together the money to buy a vehicle in March. It’s an instrument to combat rising antisemitism across the nation, he said.

“I’m a lover of Israel and just a compassionate human being,” Aeder said. “But you don’t have to be a lover of Israel to recognize the brutality of this massacre. It was just something that reached into your heart.”

Aeder met Smith when he was 6. Now, “he’s just another one of my kids,” he said. Smith, who was already operating a trucking business, was the perfect candidate to drive the vehicle.

“I couldn’t be prouder. He has such a big heart,” said Aeder, who is also godfather of Hersh’s 2-year-old daughter. “He has an incredible fervor for this mission.”

Aeder recently bought a second truck, which will travel across the Midwest beginning in June. The driver? None other than Smith’s best friend, LaDante Clayborn.

Clayborn used to join Marcy and Smith for Shabbat dinners growing up — he too wears a Star of David around his neck.

“The message is always, ‘Bring them home,’” Clayborn, 28, said. “People get mad, but what’s so bad about that? If it was your son, wouldn’t you want them to be free?”

Smith and Clayborn don’t know for how long they’ll drive the trucks. The initiative ends when all the hostages are free — it’s the least he can do, Smith added.

“Marcy saved my life,” he said.

Smith is getting married in August. He’s doing the mother-son dance with both his birth mother and Marcy.

He hopes Hersh will be there too.