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Grieving and on edge, US Jews, Muslims seek solace as Hamas-Israel war rages

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Grieving and on edge, US Jews, Muslims seek solace as Hamas-Israel war rages
Sharon Bernstein
October 14, 2023

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Jewish and Palestinian Muslim communities in the United States remain on edge a week after the brutal attack by Hamas militants on Israeli civilians and Israel's subsequent reprisals in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Friday services, highlighted by the main weekly prayers for Muslims and the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown, were the first since the massacre. Mosques and synagogues beefed up security as tension ran high in both communities.

As people gathered in grief and worry, synagogues invited trauma experts to speak to congregants shaken by the unexpected attacks and war in the Middle East, said Richard Priem, a security expert who works with Jewish organizations.

"This is a Shabbos when we all need to come together as one big family that suffered a tremendous, horrific loss," said Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesman for the Chabad movement of Hasidic Jews, using the Yiddish word for the Jewish Sabbath.

Larry Mead, vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said, "We are seeing the Jewish community is very apprehensive.

"They feel upset and they feel helpless. They are on edge."

Synagogues expected turnout on Friday night to be higher than usual as worshippers sought spiritual and emotional connection.

"We're not going to cancel Shabbat," said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. "We're not going to cancel Jewish life."

In Brooklyn Heights, the Orthodox Congregation B'nai Avraham and Chabad planned a Sabbath dinner for 120 people to pray in spiritual solidarity, Rabbi Aaron Raskin said.

Also in Brooklyn, Reform Congregation Beth Elohim planned programs over the weekend for children and teens.

"Many of us know someone or love someone who was killed, is in captivity, was hiding in terror, or is being called up for service," the synagogue told congregants in an email.

"And meanwhile, hundreds of innocent Palestinians are also losing their lives, trapped in Gaza as the war is just beginning."

In California, social worker Diane Weber prepared to speak to Congregation Beth Shalom in suburban Sacramento about trauma, survival and community.

"What I'm hearing is the need for a safe place just to talk and for gathering for support," Weber said.

It was key to remind people of the little things they can do at times of fear and trauma, such as being aware of the sights and smells around them when doing something as ordinary as washing the dishes, she said.

In the Natomas neighborhood across town, Muslim worshippers at the Tarbiya Institute held special prayers for those who had lost loved ones, and heard a sermon on how to respond spiritually to conflict and trauma.

Among those attending was Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Elkarra, who condemned the attacks on civilians by Hamas, also carries the burden of knowing that his own relatives have been killed.

The night before, he said, 17 members of his brother-in-law's family were killed as they tried to evacuate northern Gaza in advance of Israeli attacks. The day before that, three relatives were killed in strikes in Gaza.

"It’s just horrendous," he said. "You feel this guilt that we are living here in freedom, and our family over there is suffering."

Elkarra said he took hope from calls he had been receiving from Jewish colleagues in the region's interfaith community.

Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago CAIR chapter, said on Facebook he had also been talking with Jewish counterparts in the region, and took hope in the connections made.

A Chicago rabbi reached out to him this week, Rehab posted, after the two hashed through some difficult discussions a few weeks ago.

In the post, Rehab recounted what the rabbi told him: "There is a lot of hurt in my community, but I am calling today to let you know I am thinking about the hurt in yours, and to express my sympathies to anyone who has lost a loved one."

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Donna Bryson and Clarence Fernandez)


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