In an unprecedented act of violence, Hamas terrorists breached the border wall between Israel and Gaza on Oct. 7, infiltrated neighboring towns, killed 1,300 civilians, and took 150 hostages. The attack caught Israel by surprise and triggered one of the most devastating waves of violence that the region has seen in decades, and the Brandeis community has suffered a heartbreaking loss as a result of the war. Brandeis Prof. Emeritus Ilan Troen (NEJS) lost his daughter and son-in-law, Deborah and Shlomi Matias, who were killed while shielding their 16-year-old son, Rotem, from Hamas terrorists. During the initial series of attacks that triggered the subsequent war, Hamas terrorists entered the Matias home in Holit, a kibbutz (a collective community) near the Gaza border, and unleashed gunfire on the family. 

Daniel Estrin ’06, NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem and a former student of Prof. Troen, recounted on NPR’s All Things Considered how he ran into Prof. Troen in a hospital in Southern Israel, who told him about the traumatic series of events that his family experienced earlier that morning. 

“My daughter and son-in-law were killed today, but in their dying [they] saved [Rotem’s] life. They followed his body. They were all together in the secure room. And they covered his body, and he was saved. He — nevertheless, a bullet penetrated them and went into his abdomen,” Troen said.

Rotem is recovering from a gunshot wound and is expected to survive. Prof. Troen provided more details of the attack in a live NBC interview. He explained that Hamas terrorists used explosives to break through the doors of the family’s home as well as their bomb shelter/safe room. The terrorists then lit the house on fire as they did all the other houses in the neighborhood, so that, according to Prof. Troen, “if there were a survivor, that survivor would run out, and then they could shoot him.”

Deborah Matias called her father at around 6:30 a.m. local time and told him that they heard gunshots and people speaking Arabic outside of their home. She then reported broken glass and that was the last he heard from her. 

"The next we heard was from her son saying … they're dead, and we learned that he was lying under her and was covered in part by his parents' blood, and that he himself had been wounded," Prof. Troen said.

Rotem survived after hiding for 12 hours. Prof. Troen and other relatives helped him through the excruciating wait via a family group chat, because they did not want him to speak lest anyone outside the house hear him and realize that he survived. Rotem’s two sisters, Shir and Shakked, who were not home, found out about their parents’ death in a six-word text message from Rotem, as he tried to preserve his battery while hiding: “Mom and Dad are dead. Sorry.” Shakked recounted in an interview with CNN that she lost her cell service right after receiving that text message and waited for at least 13 hours until she was able to verify the well-being of her parents and her brother. 

In a statement to the Boston Globe, Prof. Troen said the events were a “well-rehearsed act of unbridled violence,” and that “Deborah and Shlomi Martias were not murdered in a mere ‘attack.’ It was a pogrom.” In the same NBC interview, Prof. Troen said, “These were people who came bent on murder, and they succeeded to such a significant extent that in this house right now, the siblings and the surviving children are together discussing how and where they’re going to bury their parents. It can’t be done in the community in which they made their home, because it’s still a warzone. So where does one go?”

Born and raised in Boston, Prof. Troen is the founding director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, the Lopin Chair of Modern History at Ben-Gurion University, and the Karl, Harry, and Helen Stoll Professor of Israel Studies at Brandeis — the first such chair to be appointed in the United States.

Prof. Troen joined Ben-Gurion University in 1975 and was a pioneer in the academic field of Israel Studies. He was the founding editor of “Israel Studies,” the leading journal in the field. His work and research in this field brought him to the attention of Brandeis, which then recruited his help in 2007 with the founding of the Schusterman Center, the largest and most significant center for Israel Studies outside of Israel. He has authored and edited numerous books on American, Jewish, and Israeli history. 

Prof. Troen now lives in Be’er Sheva, the largest city in Israel’s Negev desert. His daughter, Deborah, attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston and met her husband, Shlomi, at the Rimon School of Music in Ramat Hasharon. “Deborah was a child of light and life,” Troen said in a CNN interview. “She, rather than becoming a scientist or a physician, she said to me one day, ‘Dad, I have to do music because it’s in my soul.’”

In the same CNN interview, Rotem recounted the dedication and love that his parents bestowed upon him and his sisters. “They wanted us to be happy — to be whimsical. They wanted us to be joyful. They wanted us to be in peace. They didn’t want us to be [in] a situation like this, and they wanted us to live, more than anything.” While Rotem, Shir, and Shakked comforted one another during the CNN interview, Rotem said about his parents, “They won’t die there. They won’t die. They will live on in memories and in stories.”

The Schusterman Center sent out a statement on Oct. 9, in which they wrote that “The Troen family tragedy is deeply felt by all of us at the Schusterman Center, which was shaped by years of his wise leadership and by the field of Israel Studies more broadly. For decades, Ilan has devoted himself to founding and leading a number of the field's most significant institutions and publications. He is beloved by countless colleagues and students … We wish Ilan, Carol, and the family strength, comfort, and an end to suffering.”

The statement also said that any notes of condolence sent to will be sent to Ilan and Carol.