Inna Serebro-Litvak

May We Cry From Joy Like Joseph

Teddy bears with the photos of children hostages on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv

At a time of deep pain in the world and a focus on the battle for Israel’s survival, I would like to take a moment to step back and share with you why we chose to move to Morris county.

You should know that my decision to locate in Randolph was greatly influenced by the presence of a large Jewish community which had built a significant 100 year old historical legacy.

Look around and you will see that this  is really an understatement! There is certainly no lack of synagogues of various denominations in and around our town. This diversity gives Jewish residents a wide choice and the opportunity to select a temple that meets their religious needs.

As a matter of fact, on my way to Temple Shalom, I pass both Randolph synagogues -the Chabad of Randolph and Mt. Freedom Jewish Center.

Recently, Mount Freedom Synagogue displayed the photos of the Israeli hostages being held by Hamas on the chairs around Shabbat table. Like the one displayed in Tel Aviv, the empty Shabbat table is meant to remind us of all the hostages who still remain in captivity. The empty table also confirms that we must never forget their surviving family members who cry for them every day as they remain hopeful in their prayers for their speedy return.

Next to the table there are strollers that are a stark symbol of the innocent babies and toddlers who were mercilessly snatched from their cribs and beds and taken away.

A few days ago, when I passed Mt. Freedom, I noticed that the strollers had been overturned by the wind. This disruption was an even more visceral reminder of the tragedy that occurred on October 7. This scene of scattered strollers haunts me in its clarity as it signifies the lives that were uprooted and overturned in the recent months since the October attack. The vulnerability of the strollers reinforces the horror the babies and children endure. In my mind I can hear the cries of these infants and toddlers who are still being held in Hamas’ claws.

We will never forget what has happened.

As I mentioned in my previous sermon, the first thing visitors see while walking through the airport after disembarking in Ben Gurion airport, is a photo display of all the hostages.

In fact, in all of Israel there is not a single city, town or village where the pictures of chatufim (the hostages) are not displayed.

But of all the displays, the most moving and  heart-wrenching is the display along Dizengoff street. There,  on each bench, where normally couples or groups of teenagers would be hanging out, there are now white teddy bears – each the size of a person – with blood (red paint) smeared over them. Each one has the photo of a kidnapped child displayed on its chest. The message is clear and today no one else sits on those benches anymore.

But even though we are confronted with reality every minute of every day, by the time I traveled to Israel in November along with our cohorts in Amplify Israel, life was already gradually returning to “normal.”

This was especially true in Tel Aviv. There, the stores, cafes and restaurants were open and were buzzing with conversations and music. But no matter how it appeared, everyone was prepared and on alert. It was obvious that they knew at any time there could be siren warnings of a rocket attack.

Many customers at the restaurants were in  IDF uniforms. This meant that they were released for a day or so but remained on active duty and would soon be going back to the fighting – both in Gaza and on the Northern boarder. They made jokes and had fun with their friends, as if they didn’t have to risk their lives in the near future. It all seemed surreal.

Yes, I have lived through the Golf war and was in Israel during the Gaza war, but it never felt like this before.

Just seeing those “bloody” teddy bears alone can unnerve the most unemotional person.

It is unimaginable that people, that children, are being used by Hamas as currency.

Of course the practice of holding hostages to  exchange for ransom or a swap of prisoners is not a new concept.

Even in last week’s Torah portion “Vayigash,” we read that Joseph had asked his half brothers to bring him his brother Benjamin (they, of course, didn’t know yet that it was Joseph they had come to – to ask for food during the famine).

We know that Joseph had no intention of harming his brother Benjamin, but rather wanted to test his half brothers to determine if they were genuine in their repentance for selling him as a slave. He knew first hand what it meant to be in captivity!

In this Torah portion we are told that Joseph reveals his identity to the brothers, no longer able to contain the secret. And we read that when he told them, he cried. He cried for the cruelty of his brothers; he cried for all the years he missed out on being with his family; he cried because he was relieved  to be reunited with his brothers; and I think that he also cried because he no longer had to pretend that he would keep Benjamin as a captive in order to hold his brothers accountable for what they did.

Joseph’s tears remind me of the emotional reunions we saw in the last month between released hostages and their family members. We can only guess the complexity of what they felt. They and their loved ones who survived the attack on Black Shabbat (as Israelis call now October 7) will deal with this trauma for the rest of their lives.

It took a great effort to bring those 110 hostages captured by Hamas home. Besides the countries that participated in the negotiations there were numerous people – hostages family members, volunteers in Israel and around the world, and diplomats-who were, and still are, involved in the process.

We met with the former ambassador from Israel to France, Daniel Shek, who was asked to bring his expertise in negotiations to help bring the hostages home.

The Hostage and Missing Families Forum works in collaboration with the government’s efforts to release the captives, but they also cooperate  with the Red Cross to try to supply the hostages with needed medications. (Although Shek shared with us that even when the medications were obtained, Red Cross wouldn’t deliver them. )

Unfortunately, these facts don’t get reported in the media. On the contrary, Israel is continuously vilified and is portrayed as an aggressor and baby killer.

Just three days ago, I saw the article how Evangelical Lutheran Church, built on the place where it is believed Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem on the West Bank,  created a nativity scene. This year instead of being in the crib, “baby Jesus” – a toy baby, wrapped in the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh, was placed in the rubbles, resembling a war-torn Gaza.

I was appalled, realizing that millions of people will be waking up on the day before Christmas to that image!

What is the first thing that comes to mind? Blood Libel.

With the photo from the Bethlehem Church, for millions of Christians it was a resurfaced narrative – Jews killing Jesus.

Again, I felt like we, Jews, are loosing the media war.

Oh, how I wish this image would be replaced with the one of overturned strollers or bloody teddy bears. Unfortunately, for the world it is becoming “old news”.

For the world but not for us, Jews, and especially not for the families who spend every single moment of their life hoping, worrying, crying for their loved ones in captivity.

The longer there are no news about the hostages, the longer Hamas is refusing to negotiate, – the stronger the pain for the families.

I think that our obligation as Jews all around the world is to continue to spread awareness in our respective communities about the plight of the hostages and continue to keep the pressure on decision makers to release the hostages.

Unfortunately, with each day the hope of safe return of all the hostages is becoming bleaker and bleaker but we shall not give in to tears and despair because one of the things that helped us to survive is hope.

And I pray that one day we will cry. We will cry loud, like Joseph, and our tears will be tears of joy as we celebrate the safe return of our Israeli brothers and sisters.

About the Author
Rabbi Cantor Inna Serebro-Litvak was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She made aliyah to Israel with her entire family. There, she pursued her undergraduate studies at the Music Academy of Tel Aviv University. After graduating, she move to the United States and enrolled at JTS Miller Cantorial School. Rabbi Inna was the first woman from the Former Soviet Union to graduate from JTS. Rabbi Inna served as the cantor at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ and Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, NJ. While serving as the cantor at Temple Beth Am, she enrolled and completed her Rabbinic Ordination and Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies at AJR. Rabbi Inna is currently serving as the senior rabbi at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, NJ She is married to Anatoly Litvak, and has two daughters Emily and Abigail. In her free time, Rabbi Inna enjoys hiking, practicing yoga, going to theaters, listening to audiobooks and learning French.