Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

All of Israel is being held hostage

Today, I am giving a sermon primarily as an Israeli citizen.  Normally in our service at this time we would ask upon a representative from Israel to speak. Understandably, our resources are spread thin in Israel. I will be speaking on behalf of Israel, not primarily as a Rabbi but upon being a citizen of the state of Israel.

Tonight, we feel pain, anger, and so much loss and sorrow that we are almost drained of those emotions. We continue to count our dead.  Processing trauma is one of the hardest things to do. It is a holy responsibility to do this in a synagogue today. Feelings provide us with valuable information.

If we place our hand on a hot stove, the sensation of heat, along with the burning skin cells and nerves, tells us to remove our hand. If we feel hungry, we eat. If we bleed, we feel pain. When we get cold, “the human body has a mechanism to try and boost our core temperature when it gets chilly. Our muscles shiver and teeth chatter. Our hairs rise and our flesh forms goosebumps.”

Imagine if our bodies lacked the ability to feel heat, cold, or pain. Being subject to such numbness would prove a curse to our existence and maybe even make it harder for us to survive.

We, the Jewish people, are an organism. When we feel symptoms, we must react. In the hours following the massacres in Israel, I received phone calls from family, loved ones, and friends. I was hearing from fellow Jews who wanted to hear, from a rabbi, that there was an antidote for such terror or a vaccine to prevent the spread of an ailment, a virus ravaging our people that so heartlessly took away our holy souls.

Anti-Semitism has always existed in the world. Some people have always felt it here, while others have not. However, this attack is different from what we, as Jews in Israel, have historically experienced. A pogrom had never occurred in Israel. Jews have never been the victims of a massacre in Israeli history. The very creation of Israel was an assurance of our safety and security for our people from anti-Semitism, ancient Jew hatred and  against pogroms.

Today we question the safety we have all held so sacred.

Our feelings are telling us something tonight: we are angry; we are upset; and we are sad.

We must fight the infection ravaging our bodies. We must react to the attack felt upon us. This infection is not limited to our community but has spread among our brothers and sisters in many nations. It is currently an epidemic in the world that, right now, has manifested, in the form of ancient Jew hatred and anti-Semitism within the Jewish organism, but many others know it equally well but call it by the name “terrorism.”

On October 7th, during the ending celebration of Sukkot, a carefully orchestrated terror attack was made against Israel by the terrorist organization Hamas during our holiday observances.

The attack has infiltrated Israeli borders, safety, and security. As of today, the death toll of Israelis has been reported at over 1,400 murdered with 2,500+ injured.  Over 200 civilians were kidnapped in Israel. They include mostly women and children and span nationalities, including many Americans.

I fear what I say next is disturbing to most. It should be. However, I fear the world does not know the crimes that are being committed. As part of the terrorist plot disturbing Israeli and Jewish life, Hamas has disseminated onto the internet videos of the attack of innocent civilians, including women and infants onto Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook.

Hamas has paraded the bodies of civilians, captured Israeli infants and children in cages in the streets of the heart of Gaza as trophies In Gaza, large crowds of Palestinians awaited them, cheering “Allahu Akbar” and “God is Great” in Arabic.

The paid advertising for the social media accounts associated with the videos has targeted Israelis online. I have seen these videos personally, as they have been directed toward myself and other Israelis and Jewish leaders.

Most heartbreaking for me was the bombardment of images and videos of a young Israeli boy, my son’s age. On October 8th a video emerged of a young Israeli boy appearing confused and alone after being kidnapped in Gaza by terrorists.

In the video he calls out “Ima, Abba,” as he is being abused by Palestinian children. Upon seeing these images, I was and still am traumatized. These pictures have etched their way into my mind, and it will take years to process them.

My birthday was on October 8. After seeing the videos of the young boy abducted into Gaza, I was not around my son. He was with my parents, preparing for my birthday celebration. He baked me a cake, wrapped gloves in gift paper, and wrote me a card. I drove what seemed like forever to see him. Micha ran to me, and I hugged him for what seemed like an eternity. As soon as I saw Micha, I ran to him and hugged him. I started to cry. Micha looked at me and said, “It’s okay, Daddy, I made you a cake.” He asked why I was crying.

Explaining to a 5-year-old child in appropriate language the circumstances for my tears was one of the hardest things I have had to do as a father. Yet I feel privileged that we have each other today.

Since the early days of October 8th, no word has been heard from any of the hostages.  As a result of the attack and kidnappings, acting in the pure safety and security of its civilians, Israel has begun the bombardment of Gaza, demanding for all hostages to be returned.

Hamas last week declared a Global Jihad targeting Jews. Hamas’s charter has always called for the total extermination of global Jewry.  I say all this to illustrate that Israel is at war. It is at war with terrorism. This is not a war of moral equivalence. It never was. There are no two sides to this conflict. Terrorism targets civilians. Israel targets terrorists. For 15 some years in Israel, some of us imagined the threat as contained in Gaza and somehow redeemable with negotiations from a terrorist organization.

Today, even peaceniks like us see with fresh eyes, as there is no possibility for peace with terrorism. Hamas and their terrorist ancillary organizations and entities must be neutralized by civilization, should we ever have peace with our neighbors. I pray that peace comes, but as long as terrorism, blackmails, and kidnappers disrupt the peaceful existence of humanity, we can’t know peace.

In the upcoming weeks, we will hear terrorist demands to cease the assault against terrorism in Gaza and abroad. Well, brothers and sisters, we will not stop. We cannot afford to stop or show mercy to terrorists. We cannot afford another massacre or tolerate another hostage standoff. The privileges of Israeli freedom are tremendous, but so too are the associated responsibilities of our citizenship to the nation of Israel in national service and defense.

I am disturbed to see cities I am familiar with and have lived in become a warzone in Israel.  In 2008, I lived in Kibbutz Nir Oz, one of the cities that hostages were kidnapped from.  During those same years, I was living in Israel. I served national service as a medic and have periodically returned to Israel over the years.

Across the ocean, I wish there was more that I could do. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called upon reservists to activate. Upon hearing this news, I received a phone call from one of our congregants.  She called me with few details, just a reminder with the wisdom of a Jewish grandmother. She said, “Shmuel, your son is your priory You are all he has. Be with him.” Shortly after the phone call, I was added to a WhatsApp group for Israelis residing in the US, called upon for national service.

As many have scrambled to catch flights, I was left with a decision: stay or leave.  Reminded of the call made, and after looking around the room tonight, I know that I am needed here.  Israel is fighting a war on all fronts.  Our voice needs to be heard here and not silenced.

Tonight, we feel pain, anger, sadness, pity, and fear. I welcome these feelings.  Our brethren in America and abroad are experiencing many of the same symptoms.

Are we not subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, and warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian or Muslim?  If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?  And if you wrong us, shall we not seek justice?  Our justice may be to ensure that others cower in fear if they seek to exterminate us, to kidnap us.

Let today be an opportunity for us to join hands with our brethren and be united in the fight against the menace of our peoples.  Tonight, I am praying for the Israeli Defense Forces to swiftly neutralize the surprise attack that has disturbed the peace of our holiday season.  I am also praying for the safety of Israel and for every hostage being held by Hamas.  For all those with loved ones in Israel, know that we as a community are here to support you.

Tonight, let us come together in prayer for Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Polin is the Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation - Monroe Township Jewish Center on Monroe Township, New Jersey. A New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Subsequent to both of masters programs, Rabbi Polin graduated with a third Masters in Hebrew Letters and received his Semikhah (Rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations.