The events since Simchat Torah reminded me of the crisis in Texas, when Rabbi Charlie and a few of his congregants were held hostage in their synagogue in January, 2022. I was of course thrilled that the hostages were not killed, but horrified to hear in the press “no one was killed.” The truth was no hostages were killed, but the man who kept them hostage was killed after Rabbi Charlie and his congregants escaped. I felt it was honest for us to acknowledge the loss of his life.
It is the same in war. I need to acknowledge the loss of all life. This doesn’t reduce the horror of any specific acts. That’s why I mourn for those killed in Israel and Gaza. That’s why I pray for the hostages’ release. That’s why I want to see a stop to the invasion of Gaza by Israel.
So when I heard Or Shalom was offering a collective shiva (Jewish mourning ritual) for all lives lost, I jumped in my car and drove over the bridge to join. We sat shiva for all the lives lost. We sat shiva for the loss of our own sense of safety and security. We sat shiva for what the Jewish community was before this moment of rupture. We sat shiva for the death and destruction that is inevitably to come.
We sat in a circle in a room lit mostly by candles. We didn’t need to invent new liturgy. We had the evening service our tradition has gifted us. We spoke about our grief. I could finally breathe. All week I had felt afraid, anxious and alone. Even within the Jewish community and with friends who were not Jewish. Many people jumped to politics and asked questions and made statements, when I felt it was too soon for words. I felt heartbreak, only heartbreak. All I wanted to do was to sit shiva.
I wondered whether it was smart for me to wear my kippah. I heard talk about people saying mezzuzot were dangerous. I worried every time I went to synagogue. I made sure I knew where the exits were and I brought my cell phone in when I might not have in the past. I seriously considered the Zoom option, even when I wanted to see and touch my people. Anti-semitism just got racheted up a notch in this country.
There are also thousands of Palestinians and others in Gaza (and elsewhere) who have been and are suffering, displaced, and have been killed. Their future is frightening. Whenever there is a flare of violence in Israel or Palestine, Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian/anti-Arab rhetoric and actions rise in the U.S. I believe this is also a time for all of us to be especially tender with our friends, colleagues, neighbors and their loved ones who are Muslim, Palestinian, or otherwise from Arab populations.
Many people asked if I knew anyone in Israel. The worldwide Jewish community is tiny for many reasons, including genocide and pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) occurring within our living memory or the memory of our parents or grandparents. This is why, in addition to reading the news many are reading, most of us are also learning on our personal networks about funerals, people missing, people kidnapped, and bodies of people identified. This is true whether we are closely connected to Israel or not connected to Israel at all. Whether we are horrified about and critical of the government of Israel, or whether we would do anything for it. Whether we are against the occupation and pray for a time where Jews and Palestinians can have peace as the cousins we are, or whether we are primarily concerned about the security of Israel.
At the collective shiva we were asked to make a commitment about something this moment was asking of us. For me, it was truth-telling. The truth is I mourn the losses on all sides of this conflict and grieve what will come from continued fighting.
I am not the rabbi who is also a political expert, but I believe violence isn’t the answer to this conflict and it never has been. There must be another way. There is a lot of suffering needing to be validated and seen. There are narratives needing to be heard. There is grief needing to be felt. And there is historical trauma needing healing. Violence is not the answer.
My friends remind me to hope, even if peace doesn’t come in my lifetime. Truthfully, I don’t know how to muster the hope, but I will lean on those of you who do.
Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be so.