Among American Jews, ‘You See a Lot of Broken Spirits’ After Attacks

The deadly attacks and kidnappings in Israel this weekend shocked Jews across the United States, leading to tightened security at American synagogues, the cancellation of some holiday celebrations and a sense of horror and helplessness amid concern for relatives and fears of more violence to come.

The brutal assault by Hamas, which killed more than 900 Israelis and prompted retaliatory strikes that have killed nearly 700 Palestinians, comes amid a disturbing stream of antisemitic speech and attacks in the United States and globally, which have put synagogues and Jewish institutions on edge.

“You see a lot of broken spirits wandering around right now,” said Jonathan Celestino, 26, an employee of the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center in Chicago, “because so many people are hurt, scared and concerned.”

The small but diverse Jewish community in America — numbering about 7.5 million in 2020, or 2.4 percent of the U.S. population — has long been polarized over how to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In more recent months, American Jews have also been split over the far-right Israeli government’s push to limit judicial authority.

But many Jewish leaders said the targeted killing of hundreds of civilians by Hamas and the threats to kill kidnapped hostages had brought a sense, at least for now, of unity.

At Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a Reform synagogue, Rabbi Rachel Timoner has long criticized the Israeli government and its occupation of Palestinian territories. Just weeks ago, she recalled in an interview on Monday, she delivered a Rosh Hashana sermon that described loyalty to Israel as “standing with Israelis against this government.” It drew a standing ovation, she said.

But an hour before she was set to deliver another sermon on Saturday morning, reports emerged of the attack by Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls Gaza. She quickly understood, in the midst of her horror, what her message must be.

“Now is a time to stand unequivocally with Israel and Israelis,” she recalled telling her congregants, “and to say to our Israeli family that we are grieving with them, and we are praying now that Israel will defeat Hamas.”

Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, a global network of strictly observant Jewish congregations, said he was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah in Brooklyn on Saturday with visitors from Israel — some of whom had to travel home and report for military duty after the attacks.

He said it was a time for Jews to “double down on being Jewish,” and pray and light candles for Israel.

Prayer was a response across the country, including at a vigil on Monday evening in Providence, R.I., where Stephanie Hague, chief policy officer at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, said it felt like one small way to show support for Israel.

For many Jews, the distress of the attacks was heightened by connections to friends, relatives or colleagues in Israel, some still missing or unaccounted for on Monday.Credit…Irynka Hromotska for The New York Times

“It feels like one of the only things we can do,” she said. “It feels like we’re so far away.”

In Los Angeles on Sunday night, a vigil drew some 2,000 people to the Stephen Wise Temple, where attendees gripped each other’s shoulders, hugged and swayed to music in the cavernous worship hall. There was applause when speakers reminded them to stay strong and support Israel, including monetarily.

A handful of attendees cloaked themselves in the Israeli flag as the evening drew to a close.

“The people here, they want to help,” said Miriam Zlotolow, 78, a retiree who immigrated to the United States from Israel when she was 21. “They want to draw strength from each other.”

For many Jews, the distress was heightened by connections to friends, relatives or colleagues in Israel, some still missing or unaccounted for on Monday.

Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, described obsessively watching the news in recent days while keeping in constant contact with friends in Israel. “I know any number of people whose kids have been mobilized and who spent nights in safe houses, who’ve lost friends or have had friends kidnapped,” he said.

Like others, he said he feared what lay ahead, and the likelihood that the toll would grow. “As a human being, and as a rabbi, the last thing I want to see is innocents dying for the decisions of their leaders,” he said.

At Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., a school founded by American Jews, the mood was solemn on Monday, said Ronald Liebowitz, the university’s president, who spent part of the day roaming the campus and talking to students. Many were grieving on behalf of a well-known emeritus professor, Ilan Troen, whose daughter and son-in-law were killed in the attack while protecting their 16-year-old son, who survived.

While he is preparing for the possibility of growing tension between campus groups that hold opposing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Liebowitz said he sensed the usual campus debates had been placed on hold.

“Politics, at least here, seem to be set aside for now,” he said, adding: “No one I know is looking at those issues of politics now. They’re looking at the savagery of these attacks.”

Anna Betts contributed reporting.

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