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Far from Israel, Jews grieve and pray for peace in Shabbat services held as Israel-Hamas war rages

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Far from Israel, Jews grieve and pray for peace in Shabbat services held as Israel-Hamas war rages
The Associated Press
October 14, 2023

Jews in communities far from Israel gathered at synagogues this weekend for Shabbat services held amid the ongoing war ignited by Hamas militants' attack on Israel a week earlier. Rabbis led prayers of peace and shared grief with their congregations. At many synagogues security was tight.


The deadly Hamas attack is not just another geopolitical event for Jewish people, explained one U.S. rabbi. It is dredging up generations of visceral trauma, especially in Pittsburgh – the city scarred by the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

“More Jews were killed last Shabbat … than on any other day since the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Daniel Fellman during a service at Temple Sinai. “It isn’t that Hamas wants the destruction of Israel. It’s that Hamas wants the destruction of you and me.”

“The world deserves better, the Palestinian people deserve better and we need to do better.”

Despite that anguish, Fellman’s congregation – and others across the world – heeded the words of an Israeli soldier who had urged worshippers “to go sing and dance, go make sure that every person in the world hears us singing this prayer this Shabbat.”

Fellman urged an understanding that all people are connected, including Jews, Christians and Muslims.

“They are all our brothers and sisters, and when one of us hurts, we all hurt."

For Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh, learning of the attack last Saturday as he headed to worship brought back traumatic memories of Oct. 27, 2018. That Sabbath morning was shattered by news that a gunman attacked the nearby Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 people from three congregations meeting there.

The difference, he said in an interview, was “we just could not comprehend the idea of a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.” By comparison, the Hamas attack was “tragic and horrifying and gut wrenching, but it was believable.”

After the Pittsburgh attack, “we felt the whole community embraced us,” Adelson said. “One of the things that many of us are feeling right now is that we are not feeling that embrace. We are really a community in pain and we don’t feel support.”

But they are carrying on with the rhythms of ritual life, Adelson said. Saturday’s service at Beth Shalom included a bar mitzvah, a young man’s coming-of-age initiation.

“Sometimes we celebrate, even as we know we must grieve,” he said.

— Peter Smith and Jessie Wardarski in Pittsburgh


In Pennsylvania, a SWAT officer guarded the entrance at the Shul at Newtown during its service. Outside, Edward Mackouse, 80, said he was carrying a concealed gun to protect the Orthodox synagogue – part of Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement. “We cannot be too prepared,” he said.

Inside, Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein denounced those who justify the attacks by Hamas.

“There’s something very wrong with a mind when it thinks it can justify the enormity of the tragedy,” he said.

He told congregants that if someone questions them about the Jewish right to Israel, they should not engage in intellectual debate.

“It’s very simple: because there’s a God in the world. God created the world. And God decided that he wants to give us that land – and therefore, it is our land.”

In Washington, D.C., police cruisers with flashing lights parked outside during services at Adas Israel Congregation, a prominent Conservative synagogue. Rabbi Aaron Alexander reminded congregants that this week’s liturgy repeated the Hebrew refrain to “free the captives." He evoked the Israelis held hostage and Palestinians trapped in Gaza.

Alexander noted there were worshippers connected to those killed by Hamas: a rabbi on staff lost a cousin on the Gaza border; a friend of his was being held hostage.

The rabbi paused at times, overcome with emotion. Worshippers wiped their eyes.

“No matter whose fault it may be, if we can’t well up for innocent humans lost, for babies and for children, even within enemy territory, we have lost some part of us that God has given us – the peace that makes us utterly special and unique among all creations,” Alexander said.

At Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, New York, Rabbi Daniel Geffen urged his congregation to stay strong and uphold the teachings of the Torah.

“I understand the anger. I share that anger. I don’t think I’ve been angrier,” said Geffen. “Tradition teaches us another way.”

As he spoke, Geffen dabbed away his tears with tissues. The rabbi, a pacifist, explained how that ideology was being tested by the attack.

It’s a “slippery slope of rage,” he said, and now is the time to unite behind Israel. “Do not abandon our people.”

In Los Angeles, Rabbi Nicole Guzik strongly denounced the Hamas attack and praised her Sinai Temple community for its resilience amid their heartbreak.

“You are showing Hamas – the bearers of evil, the champions of terror – that they will never break the Jewish spirit,” she said to applause from the 1,200 or so congregants.

Some had spent the week raising money, including more than $220,000 to pay for an ambulance to be sent to Israel, and collecting supplies to be shipped to Israel Defense Forces.

The worshippers, many with family in Israel, were on edge after recent pro-Palestinian rallies elsewhere in Los Angeles. The Shabbat service, themed “Sinai Temple Stands with Israel,” featured prayers and songs for Israel, including the national anthem that stirred several people to wave small Israeli flags at the close.

— Luis Andres Henao in Newtown, Pa.; Tiffany Stanley in Washington; Julie Walker in Sag Harbor, New York; Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles.


Police in Germany's capital, Berlin, visibly increased security in front of synagogues as worshippers flocked to Shabbat services.

The heightened safety measures come in reaction to global tensions triggered by Hamas’ attack, and Israel’s subsequent bombing of Gaza, as well as calls on social media to protest in front of Jewish institutions in Germany.

At Berlin’s Chabad community in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf neighborhood, the street leading to the synagogue and adjacent community center was blocked to traffic. Police and private security service patrolled as congregants arrived for worship.

Some men wore their yarmulkes hidden under baseball hats; others didn’t wear skullcaps until they entered the synagogue.

Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, head of the local Chabad community, told The Associated Press on Friday evening that “this is a very challenging moment for the Jewish people.”

“At the same time we will stand together with resilience and complete trust in God,” Teichtal added. “There is nothing more than the terrorists want than to demoralize us — they’ve achieved the opposite.”

— Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin


An Indonesian rabbi at the only synagogue in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation called for peace Saturday and an end to the fighting in the Israel-Hamas war.

“We call and pray for peace,” Modechai Ben Avraham said, “Because when peace is restored to our lives, we can carry out any activity and worship peacefully.”

The rabbi, who led prayers at Shaar Hashamayim synagogue in Tondano city on Sulawesi island, said the conflict has not caused anxiety or fear for the synagogue and its worshippers “because people know our community only focuses on carrying out religious services.”

Shaar Hashamayim is currently the only synagogue in Indonesia; it has served a local Jewish community of some 50 people in Tondano since 2019. Judaism is not recognized as one of the country’s six major religions, but its practices are allowed under Indonesia's constitution.

There are an estimated 550 Indonesian Jews, mostly in North Sulawesi, a province of more than 2.6 million people who are mainly Christian.

— Fadlan Syam in Tondano, Indonesia


As his parents hunkered down in their safe room in northern Israel, Juval Porat tried to remain focused on preparing a mix of joyful and comforting hymns for the Shabbat services at his Miami Beach, Fla., synagogue.

“For the life of me, I’m not going to cry,” the cantor said before Friday evening services in Temple Beth Sholom. “I need to be strong, so that other people can cry.”

Tears did flow as Porat and the rabbis led 300 congregants in praying for peace, for safety for the people of Israel and the soldiers defending it, and especially for the hostages.

“It’s the first time I cried,” said Michael Conway, who wore a white kippah decorated with blue doves as symbols of peace.

The prayers in Hebrew and English were “a chance to release the pent-up emotion of the week, and to be with a lot of people who knew how I feel,” he added.

In her sermon, Senior Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz named those emotions — fear, anger, shock that Israel and the Jewish people are facing “an existential moment.”

“We want to pummel Hamas with our own hands,” she told the congregation sitting in silence after she shared testimonials from survivors of a now-devastated kibbutz where, as a student, she had celebrated many Shabbats.

“But hate will never repair what is broken,” she said, urging the faithful instead to show solidarity and to support Israel’s relief efforts.

Rabbi Robert Davis struck the same note as he lit a candle to commemorate the hostages and those killed by Hamas — “the infants and children and teens, the soldiers, the concert-goers, and people waiting for the bus.”

“There aren’t enough candles,” Davis said. “Let us be the lights.”

— Giovanna Dell'Orto in Miami Beach


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


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