Alan Silverstein

Israeli resilience: Synagogue rabbis provide comfort for traumatized Israelis

With anguish I remember the shock of 9/11. As a rabbi serving in a suburban synagogue not far from New York, I sought to provide comfort to traumatized congregants. I know that similar pastoral efforts were made by priests and ministers in local churches.

In the wake of “Israel’s 9/11,” NPR reported that “[Israeli synagogue] rabbis offer pastoral care for those traumatized by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.”

One might expect that the Jewish state would excel in providing Jewish spiritual leadership. Yet Israel has a deficiency of community (i.e., synagogue) rabbis. And many of the few community rabbis there serve only part-time and must supplement their income by working in other settings. In most cases, while they have been trained in the mastery of sacred texts and Jewish law, they are lacking in pastoral skills.

What caused a disparity between the rabbinate of the (Ashkenazi) Diaspora and that of Israel? Dr. Ismar Schorsch has traced the emergence of the modern Ashkenazi Diaspora rabbinate and found that prior to eligibility for citizenship, rabbis were established in the autonomous Jewish court system and in the yeshiva educational network.

After “emancipation” from ghetto life, rabbis repositioned themselves to being present as leaders of individual congregations. As Prof. Schorsch notes, the modern rabbi was expected “to teach both the young and the old, the latter by means of sermons and lectures; to supervise the administration of charity, the conduct of the synagogue [worship services], and the competence of other religious functionaries…, to conduct marriages [and other life-cycle ceremonies]…, to render opinions on questions of Jewish law…, and to comfort the suffering.”

The role of the rabbi in the Sephardi Jewish world evolved differently and was chiefly shaped in the State of Israel. For 400 years — until the conclusion of World War I — Mizrachi Jewry operated within the Ottoman Empire’s “Millet System.” The Turkish state did not attend to the religious lives of Jews or Christians; rather, non-Muslims served as members of collective communities. Each faith was led by a chief cleric. For example, the Jews had the Hacham Bashi, in effect the Chief Rabbi, who designated officials for sub-regions and localities. Appointed rabbis administered Jewish courts and oversaw governance of life-cycle ceremonies, laws of inheritance, and other Jewish communal matters.

After World War I, the British received a mandate to administer Palestine. Seeking to maintain the Turkish status quo, they appointed a Chief Rabbi. His “rabbinate” infrastructure was comprised of local appointees supported by taxation. This “rabbanut” framework more or less remains in effect today. Most Israeli rabbis are ultra-Orthodox and are paid as state officials. They operate Jewish courts, supervise kashrut and mikvaot, distribute ritual items, and preside at religious ceremonies.

It is the rare synagogue that hires a personal pulpit rabbi. That would mean requiring members to pay synagogue dues on top of obligatory state taxes for religious matters. A national survey conducted by the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics in Modi’in concluded that “in the Jewish state, the synagogue is [only] for prayer and the occasional shiur [lesson]. Here, few shuls employ rabbis. Moreover, they are rarely full-time and are not trained in pastoral skills. As a result, a sense of community is often missing.”

Rabbi David Hoffman, president of The Honey Foundation for Israel, similarly observed: “Most Israeli ‘kehillot/communities’ do not have their own rabbi. Rabbinic ‘services’ are provided via the bureaucracy of the local municipality’s branch office of the Chief Rabbinate. Even the minority of community rabbis who serve a specific congregation do so part-time.

“Moreover, they are trained to master sacred texts but not in the ‘craft’ of community building. Some of the community rabbis come to this ‘entrepreneurial skill set’ intuitively. But most do not.”

This deficiency in the supply and training of community rabbis is evident during times of trauma. Rabbi Hoffman points to the categories of “a hierarchy of needs” as delineated by the late Will Maslow — an American lawyer and civil rights leader and a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress — who said that especially in a period of warfare, “safety and security are of high importance.” But, he argued, “human connection, emotional support, feeling seen, and living with a sense of purpose are as important to human flourishing as security is.”

The emotional needs of Israelis are served in part when tight-knit family systems are in place. The process of healing also is aided by their “chevra,” a close-knit circles of friends. This is notably evident in networks of youth movement alumni and among comrades of those who served together in the IDF and in its reserve units. “Connections” are strengthened even further if one becomes part of a synagogue community. At best this involves bonding with the synagogue’s rabbi as a “personal rabbi.”

The Honey Foundation for Israel is pursuing an interpersonal revolution by addressing the community rabbi deficiency. The following are a few examples of situations where community rabbis served individual needs. These dedicated spiritual leaders offer emotional support, as well as a sense of being heard and seen.

Rabbi Hoffman recently spent Shabbat visiting the home of Rabbi Nissimi in Jerusalem. As a visiting rabbi, Hoffman was greeted erev Shabbat by Nissimi’s seven-year-old daughter, Amalia. The young girl offered a warm welcome, said Hoffman. “My Abba and Ima aren’t home,” she said. “They are still out doing their pre-Shabbat mitzvah run which they do every Friday afternoon, bringing people cakes my Abba baked. They are visiting my teacher. Her brother was killed this week.”

“Amalia said this matter-of-factly,” said Hoffman, “and then was off telling me about her week.”

Rabbi Hoffman reflected: “How tragic that a seven-year-old has such familiarity with death that she can so easily say a sentence like ‘My teacher’s brother was killed this week.’ And how fortunate was this community to have a spiritual leader who spent the precious hours before Shabbat visiting families and bringing them food…. Nissimi has a presence that is quite unique; it invites the sharing of deep emotions, while also helping people to rise from their pain.”

The founder of the Honey Foundation, Bill Lipsey, also has inspiring observations to share. He visited with another of the foundation’s 50 rabbinic fellows, Rabbi Ayala Dekel:

“Dekel has become a public figure via her connection to a place that has come to be called ‘Hostage Square,’ in Hebrew, ‘Kikar Hatufim,’” said Lipsey. “Each Friday afternoon she leads a service for anyone who is in the square. Traditionally this service is the gateway into Shabbat. It is filled with spirit and singing, with an emphasis on thankfulness for our blessings. Thankfulness is not an easy message during this time of war. But this place has become the central address dedicated to holding the nation’s collective pain. All walks of life come to this square to honor the hostages, to share in the families’ pain, just to be with other Israelis in this troubled moment.

“Ayala Dekel has this amazing capacity to transform a disparate crowd into a community of 1,000 strangers. Swaying to the songs, some old and filled with ritual, some new and passionately modern Israeli.”

NPR correspondent Jason DeRose recently provided similar observations, focusing upon outreach by Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum, another Honey Foundation rabbinic fellow:

“Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum is among the rabbis offering pastoral care to victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack,” reported DeRose. “Tamar recollected, ‘I saw, just as I entered one of the hotels, a child hiding himself underneath the table and holding on to the leg of the table…. And I remember seeing his mother going down underneath the table and sitting next to him….’ In the same way that the mother, traumatized herself, sought to comfort her child, Elad-Appelbaum says rabbis figuratively sit underneath a table and hand Jews the tools that are closest to their hearts to understand and process the trauma of Oct. 7.”

DeRose recorded that “since October, Rabbi Appelbaum has been to more than 60 funerals — some with multiple coffins because militants killed entire families…. [People] want to hear what their tradition has to offer during these painful days. The Oct. 7 attacks on Israel displaced tens of thousands of Jews from their kibbutzim near Gaza. Since then, rabbis have been crisscrossing the country offering trauma-informed pastoral care to victims.”

To the Honey Foundation, effective spiritual leaders are the key to forging grassroots communities. Thanks to stipends from the foundation, some part-time rabbis are becoming full-time. Thus they are enabled to provide an ongoing “rabbinic presence.” One such success story is Rabbi Elisha Wolfin of Zichron Yaakov:

Rabbi Wolfin said the Honey Foundation program “completely changed my approach to this community in expected and unexpected ways.”

In order to earn an adequate salary, Wolfin previously had to work for the Tali school system (which offers Jewish studies to children in secular Israeli schools), but now, thanks to a Honey Foundation stipend, he has been able to focus solely on his kehillah. As a result, he said, he could attract more people by implementing “a lot more programming…. We have more now: more classes, more options…. And increased activities have resulted in increased membership and revenue for a full-time rabbinic salary….”

Importantly, the fellowship has changed the culture of Elisha’s community. Before, while he was always willing to meet with people from his community, these meetings had to be squeezed into a tight schedule. Now, as a full-time rabbi, he can be at the synagogue all the time, ready to respond when a need arises.

Previously Wolfin did not have an office in the synagogue; now he does. “It’s just about being present,” he said. “Someone drops by while they’re doing their shopping, and they come in to say hello. I never realized how many people…do that. You get to feel the pulse of the community. That was huge.”

Yes, in times of war and stress, people desperately need security and safety. But their needs do not end there. As Rabbi Hoffman concluded, “Feeling connected, seen, and supported is not just fluff or ‘the icing on the cake.’ It’s essential.”

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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