It may have been a bit chutzpadik, but last Shabbat I welcomed worshippers, who include many non-synagogue members watching online, with these words: “Shabbat Shalom and good evening. Thank you to those with us here in our sanctuary, and to those watching our livestream from afar. If, however, you are in New York City north of 42nd Street and south of 96th Street and you are otherwise well and not caring for someone who needs you, please turn off your television sets or shut down your computers and join us in person on the corner of 65th Street and 5th Avenue. We are always grateful to have you with us in spirit, but right now we need your physical presence too.
“Israel is under attack from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. And it is under vicious rhetorical assault in the wider Arab world and by those around the globe who do not understand or refuse to accept the desperation of Israel’s plight, its need to keep its people safe.
“And not only is Israel under siege, so is the global Jewish community. In Berlin, a synagogue was firebombed. At Columbia University an Israeli student was beaten. In a midtown New York subway station, a Jewish woman was punched in the face. Everywhere Jews are suffering intimidation: taunts of “Kill the Jews, Death to Israel” in London; threats against a synagogue in Charlotte, North Carolina; swastikas in a school in Chappaqua, New York and at the City’s famed 2nd Avenue Deli.
“Come support the Jewish people by praying with the Jewish people!”
I opened with this plea because I fear that the ability to worship online, critical during the height of COVID and still so important for those homebound, in this moment has given too many others the excuse to sit back and watch services from their living rooms or around their dinner tables instead of making the effort to show up. And right now we need people to show up.
I understand that many may be fearful of attending synagogue. Last week’s announcement of a Global Day of Jihad was frightening. The FBI’s warning of an increase in menacing rhetoric against the Jewish community was alarming. And though motive has not yet been determined, the horrific murder of a Detroit synagogue president and inspiring Jewish communal leader was both tragic and terrifying. But if hundreds of thousands of Israelis are putting themselves in harm’s way to defend the Jewish people, the least the rest of us can do is go to temple to pray for them.
And my invitation was – and is – not just to Jews, but to all who care about Jews and the State of Israel. As this war drags on, the pressure on Israel to stand down will only increase. And the Jewish community cannot shoulder by itself the responsibility of insisting on Israel’s right to security.
All of us are deeply distressed by the tragic deaths of thousands of blameless Palestinians. They also are the victims of Hamas’s cruelty. If Hamas laid down its weapons and marched out of Gaza tomorrow, there would be peace in Gaza tomorrow. But barring such surrender, Israel must determine how best to rescue those held captive and defend its people, while doing everything in its power to protect innocents caught in the crossfire.
So Israel finds itself in a profoundly difficult position. And the Jewish community needs non-Jewish leaders to acknowledge that. President Biden has stepped brilliantly to the fore, along with other politicians, New York’s Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul among them. But we are well aware of the failure of other influential figures, moral leaders in the academic world for example, who have refused or been slow to distinguish between Hamas’s acts of deliberate brutality and Israel’s acts of self-defense.
One source of encouragement for me has been my colleagues in the faith community. No sooner had word of Hamas’s war on Israel been broadcast than I began to receive messages from local Christian and Muslim leaders decrying the attacks, extending their prayers, and offering whatever assistance they could. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan published a powerful statement declaring: “To have one’s home attacked is a sacrilege. To defend one’s home is righteous.” And then the Archdiocese made a significant financial contribution to war relief. Other clergy, too, have attended services, rallies and vigils articulating with moral clarity the distinction between aggressor and victim. Their readiness to do so signals their commitment to the Jewish community. If they can show up at temple to demonstrate solidarity, then the Jewish community certainly should.