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Aaron Katler
CEO at UpStart

Holding on to Faith

Bring Them Home Now

Since the October 7th massacre, I’ve consumed way too much media. Cable news, social media, opinion pieces, WhatsApp groups, and Telegram channels. Hours and hours of conversations about liberation, colonization, indigeneity, God, murder, faith, and fear. I’ve observed some leaders acting humbly with courage and others paralyzed by fear. What has been most significant, though, has been the power of individual voices speaking for the voiceless. 

I am proudly Jewish. My Judaism is complicated, pluralistic, and oftentimes at odds with itself ideologically and practically. This potential conflict in me is a pragmatic strength. My connection to Israel is core to my Jewish identity and very much part of that ideological and practical dissonance. I love Israel. I love what it represents at its best. I love the existential sense of security I feel because of its existence. I love the sacrifice of the people who live there who are crying out for a better future for everyone, regardless of ancestral affiliations. Despite danger, death, and a sense of hopelessness, I love that people I know are still working towards a vision of a durable peace. A peace that upholds the dignity, security, and rights of all the “others.” 

While reflecting on pain and peace these past two months, I’ve also been thinking a lot about hands. While smells can evoke a vivid memory, and words can inspire an idea, physical touch places me distinctly in the present. These days, I think about hands because of my dear friend, Hersh Goldberg Polin, and my lifelong friends, his parents, Jon and Rachel, and their two daughters. 

The world knows Hersh’s story through Rachel and Jon’s primal efforts. Hersh’s arm was partially blown off in a grenade attack as he was taken as a captive to Gaza by Hamas from the Nova music festival during the October 7th terrorist attack.

Almost all of my emotional energy has been focused on doing anything in my power to support the effort to bring Hersh home. I haven’t wanted to get involved with how this war landed locally here in Berkeley, California. Despite that, and because division and hate now directly impact my children’s schools and our daily lives, I have said yes to almost everything I have been asked to do to help safeguard the reasons we chose to raise our family here in the first place.

Like so many communities, the Berkeley City Council and School Board meetings have been taken over by disruptive crowds making demands. There has been tremendous pressure put on public officials to pass one-sided, anti-Israel ceasefire resolutions. The more moderate position has been to keep local politics out of the war and to focus any local resolutions on the rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia. I was proud that our Mayor and City Council had resisted these pressures and decided not to bring any resolution for a vote without a more thoughtful process. 

My preference for involvement is for it to be private, thoughtful, and strategic. To me, that is the most effective path for change. Quiet relationship building as an ally, not an adversary, is what I’ve tried. So, somewhat reluctantly, I recently made the decision to attend our local City Council meeting to show my support. I had watched the previous City Council meetings online, and I knew it was going to be hard. I knew I was going to be surrounded by anger, pain, and fear. The news of the nearby Oakland City Council meeting had just made its way to the international media, and I imagined this meeting might be similar. 

I listened to a podcast interview with Hersh’s parents on the walk to the meeting. As I arrived, Jon and Rachels’s words of ceaseless empathy lingered in my head. It was a dramatic scene – a dark, foggy night, surrounded by the screaming of slogans and accusations. I stood in between an elderly woman, a Holocaust survivor, as a crowd of anti-Israel demonstrators screamed, accusing her of being a genocidal baby killer. Strangers I had never met, never spoken to, and who knew nothing about me other than the fact that I was sitting on the opposite side of the room from them, yelling, inches from my face. To them, I was the “other side.” It was a scene that felt physically threatening. Masked and unmasked people were hurling rage-filled accusations at me. Somehow, I was unafraid. Somehow, I didn’t hear the threats. All I heard was the pain of being unseen and unheard, sounds of fear and powerlessness.

As I left the meeting I found myself in conversation with a few people with whom I have fundamental disagreements. We did, however, find one point of agreement: the tension in our community is getting too hot, and it likely won’t end well. Arguably it was not the most conducive time or place for hearing each other, yet we stayed engaged as long as we could. And amidst this exchange there was an almost accidental handshake that immediately brought me to the present and to the humanity of the other. 

Public messages following the meeting that preceded that handshake have already been ones of division. It’s true some parts of the meeting lacked civility and respect and were unsafe. There is no place for that in our community or society at large. Everyone should stand united against hate, hate speech, and, of course, violence. That needs to happen immediately and with urgency. To date, that level of visible leadership has been inconsistent at best. 

Our Jewish tradition teaches that in a place where there is no leadership, we are called upon as individuals to lead. I deeply believe in the basic humanity of every person in that room that night, the ones I agreed with and disagreed with. The leadership we need will not come from a dais but from the citizens who show up with courage and take the risk to shake hands with the other. 

A familiar idiom refers to “extending one’s hand” in an expression of peace. In the podcast interview I listened to on my way to the City Council meeting, Rachel, Hersh’s mother, talked soberly about imagining Hersh playing soccer in the tunnels of Gaza with other hostage children. She laughed lightly and sadly about how it might be harder for him to be a soccer goalie with only one hand. For all of us with two hands connected to our bodies and hearts, how can we not extend both hands for good, in his honor, to engage with the other for peace? 

There is a lot of “other side” talk these days. I am trying to see it as the “other,” not a side. What I know from past experiences on the Israel-Palestine subject is the deep need to be acknowledged and to be made visible. In my head and my heart, I know that my conversation the other night was the start of a change for me and I hope in our community. 

There are geological fault lines that run unseen below my neighborhood in Berkeley. Sadly, the ideological fault lines between “other sides” in our community are causing temblors every single day. We retrofit our houses’ foundations to ensure we’re safe from tectonic rifts. We’re doing scarcely little to secure the foundation of our humanity from these emotional rifts whose damage will last longer and run deeper.

Amidst what feels like a perilous spiral of inhumanity, I still have faith in individuals. I have faith that if we can truly see each other, we have the power to bridge the chasms of difference that seem unreachable. I believe in the power of those single voices to lead the way, regardless of position or power. I pray that all good people of conscience will continue to put the hands we have left together with courage and without condition in the spirit of peace, healing, and repair.

About the Author
Aaron serves as the CEO of UpStart, an incubator and accelerator for Jewish social innovation.
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