October 7 Attack, Nova Festival, Hamas, Faith

Surviving the Unthinkable: Roi Assaraf's journey to faith after surviving the Nova Festival attack

After enduring the deadly Hamas attack at the Nova Festival, Roi and Yonah Assaraf found solace and strength in their newfound faith, turning a nightmare into a story of resilience and hope.

Israeli soldiers visit the site of the Nova music festival massacre, in Re'im, near the Israeli-Gaza border. (Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

For Roi Assaraf, the thumping bass and glittering lights of the Nova Music Festival represented one more carefree night of revelry.

An avid partygoer with an extensive tattoo collection and a barbershop that didn't shutter on Shabbat, religious devotion ranked low on the 32-year-old's priority list. That all changed in a torrent of gunfire on October 7th, 2023 - a day that became a "doomsday" of crisis and danger in Israel.

Assaraf had arrived at the festival grounds in southern Israel around 6am that fateful morning with his wife Yonah and two friends. In a seemingly insignificant move that may have spared their lives, one of Assaraf's friends mounted a milk carton on their car's antenna to help them identify it amidst the sea of parked vehicles, as reported by Newsblaze and Yeshiva University Observer.

When the first missiles streaked across the pre-dawn sky at 6:28am, Assaraf's instincts kicked into overdrive. As others froze to the thumping music, he immediately felt compelled to grab Yonah and escape, ignoring the security guard's instructions to lie facedown. "I saw a flash picture of my two daughters," Assaraf recounts. "I told Yonah, 'We're not staying here. Keep eye contact with me as we run to our car.'"

A series of seemingly providential moments followed. Despite Yonah insisting they retrieve her jacket, the delay allowed them to be the first through the emergency exit as the mass exodus began. Assaraf then awoke a stranger sleeping in their backseat - a man who would go on to shepherd 27 others to safety. 

Their flight from the crossfire was filled with near misses. Assaraf defied policemen's orders to turn back towards the festival grounds. He ignored his friends' pleas to stop at an IDF base, having an eerie sense it was compromised.

Sure enough, that base had been overrun by terrorists disguising themselves as soldiers to ambush survivors.At one point, two jeeps of militants opened fire on their vehicle. "I grabbed Yonah's head and plunged it beneath the glove compartment," Assaraf says. "I lowered my head, not seeing the road ahead, and shouted Shema Yisrael."

In the rearview mirror, Assaraf watched the jeeps veer back towards the festival - and the wholesale massacre of over 360 attendees that was unfolding. His brother Idan survived six horror-filled hours taking cover at the grounds.

In the searing days after losing 13 friends to Hamas' brutality, a spiritual awakening stirred in Assaraf. Gone were the secular music festivals, replaced by synagogue attendance and traditional observance like shuttering his barbershop on Shabbat.

Once focused on attaining the next tattoo or hedonistic thrill, Assaraf now found fulfillment in faith, even rediscovering ancient practices like hitbodedut meditation."When you realize you survived death and life was gifted to you again, your outlook changes completely," Assaraf states.

He and Yonah documented the series of miracles that allowed them to cheat death, vowing to lead a life of gratitude.

Although the scars remain - Assaraf's last tattoo memorializes October 7th's victims - from the ashes of tragedy has emerged a different kind of rebirth. Now, Roi uses his Instagram account, @assarafroi, to spread awareness and inspire others. He's also writing a book to share the untold survival stories of his friends. Embracing his faith, Roi has started wearing tzitzit and now exclusively serves male clients at his barbershop, reflecting his commitment to his new religious path.

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