In America’s synagogues, calls for peace and too much emotion to process

At Temple Micah in Washington, the synagogue’s new president was preparing to fulfill his duty to brief the congregation on routine business Saturday when he paused and took a breath, seeming to grasp the gravity of the moment. Then he spoke.

“These are just announcements, and I’m getting emotional,” Brent Goldfarb said, before regaining his composure.

For many American Jews who attended the service on this day, there were too many emotions to process. Horror and sadness, anger and defiance. Fear for loved ones, for innocent lives caught in the middle, for the future. And the sheer weight of it all seemed overwhelming.

So being together, regardless of their individual beliefs, brought some comfort.

“What I needed to do was get out of my house and be with my community,” he said Isabel Hochman, 23, who attended the Saturday morning service Saturday at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan.

“What I saw was that Jews all over the world were coming together. Our community has been torn apart, but we all came together last week,” Ms. Hochman said. “I say this as someone who has no family or friends who are Palestinian. I know their community is suffering too.”

As Israeli leaders spent Saturday preparing for an invasion of Gaza, Jews in many American synagogues grappled with the scale of the total devastation so far.

At Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Philadelphia, Rabbi Eli Freedman led a Sabbath Torah study. He discussed the story of Cain and Abel and what it meant to be “your brother’s keeper” at a time when innocent lives—both Israeli and Palestinian—were lost by the thousands.

“One hundred percent, Israel has the right to defend itself,” he said. He then added: “We have a responsibility to the innocent people of Gaza.”

Ruth Smith, who attended that Torah study, called for a peaceful solution. “How many people can we kill to feel safe?” she asked.

A week after the war, the grief only increases, Rabbi Sam Levine of the East Midwood Jewish Center wrote in prepared remarks read to congregants at a conservative synagogue in Brooklyn. But he warned against succumbing to a “thirst for revenge” against Hamas.

“This is an instinct that must be suppressed. Otherwise, how are we different from them?” he wrote.

Some leaders have said that the mere presence of worshipers on the Sabbath is a statement in itself. At Temple Micah in Washington, Rabbi Healy Shir Slakman said the meaning of Jewish identity is to show up when you’re afraid, and maybe especially when you’re afraid. “Community is resistance,” she said.

In Los Angeles, Rabbi Nicole Guzik told the congregation at her Conservative synagogue, Temple Sinai, that by coming together, they show that the spirit of community will not be broken and show others in mourning that they are not alone.

“I heard your cries and anger, confusion and heartbreak,” the rabbi said. “And instead of staying hidden under the covers, you showed up.”

But overall, one feeling shared by many was simply tiredness with their complex and often discordant mix of feelings.

For Aliza Avital (72), thinking about everything is too much. Her longtime friend, Vivian Silver, is a 74-year-old peace activist, a member of Kibbutz Be’eri, who is believed to have been captured by Hamas militants. The two were among the founders of the second kibbutz in Israel in the 1970s, said Ms. Avital, a member of the East Midwood Jewish Center.

“There are so many emotions – it’s shock, it’s anger. It’s a nightmare,” she said. “I keep saying that word over and over. It’s just a nightmare.”

Peter Rabinowitz, 63, said that surrounded by his congregation at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, he helped calm the pain and offered healing.

“I can breathe. i can cry I can wonder. I can try to reconcile everything that is happening,” he said after the service. “It’s nice to be there for each other.”

Joel Wolfram in Philadelphia and Eliza Fawcett in New York contributed reporting.

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