Wracked by grief, US Jews gather to mourn, lament and raise money for Israel

(RNS) — At synagogues, public squares and on Zoom, U.S. Jews in every part of the country have been gathering to pray, grieve and comfort one another in the wake of Hamas’ devastating attack, which has killed more than 1,200 people in Israel and spurred retaliatory action in Gaza.

From New York to San Diego, and in many places in between, Jews standing in solidarity with their Israeli brothers and sisters lit candles, recited psalms and stood up to sing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva.”

The Hadar Institute in New York’s Upper West Side, a Jewish study center, declared Thursday (Oct. 12) a day of communal fasting, to which hundreds of prominent rabbis signed on.

The Hamas attack is being described by many as Israel’s 9/11, though proportionally it has been far deadlier and is equivalent to the deaths of 43,000 American lives. (By contrast, 2,996 Americans died on in the terrorist strikes of 9/11.) Additionally, about 150 hostages are believed to have been taken by Hamas.

As many historians have pointed out, Sunday’s attack may also have been the worst single day for Jewish casualties since the Holocaust.

Many American Jews have felt an acute sense of trauma, too. They have family or friends in Israel and visit frequently. Wracked by grief, they are feeling anger and despair.

“We exist in a liminal space, on the edge, waiting for the pieces to fit again,” said Rabbi Scott Looper of Temple Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama, speaking at a “Service of Comfort,” sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama.

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Many Jews are also bracing for a backlash. While global sympathies are overwhelmingly with Israel in the aftermath of the attacks, that has begun to change as Israeli airstrikes pound Gaza in retaliation. Already, more than 1,400 Palestinians have been killed as part of the Israeli retaliation and 300,000 are estimated to be homeless.

On Thursday, Columbia University closed its campus to the public ahead of a planned protest against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, and one day after a 24-year-old Israeli student was beaten in front of a library on campus, The New York Times reported.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students protested for Palestine on the steps of Wilson Library on Thursday.

Supporters of Israel, background, and Palestinian supporters, foreground, gather at the Israeli Consulate in New York, Oct. 9, 2023, in the wake of an attack on Israel by Hamas. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

And on Friday, an “International Day of Action for Palestine” is planned for New York City’s Times Square. 

Finding the right balance between anger at Hamas and empathy for Palestinian suffering will be challenging.

“I think we’re all in for a very dark time and certainly voices that are speaking out for human rights and for shared Arab-Jewish society are going to face tremendous challenges in Israel,” said Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, a group that raises money with a goal of making Israel a more equal and democratic society. “Finding people to listen to them in a moment where understandably the whole country feels brutalized and furious, will be hard.” 

American Jews are raising tens of millions of dollars to support victims and their families. On Thursday, the Jewish Federations of North America announced it was launching a $500 million campaign to support Israel. It has already allocated $10 million for Israeli groups that provide medical care, transportation, housing, trauma relief and psychological support.

Sokatch said the New Israel Fund has also received a surge of donations for victims, whether Israeli, Israeli Arab or Bedouin.

Hundreds of Kansas City community members gather in mourning and to show support for Israel on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, at The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park. Video screen grab

Hundreds of Kansas City community members gather in mourning and to show support for Israel on Oct. 9, 2023, at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kan. Video screen grab

On a Zoom prayer call with the Conservative Jewish movement’s worldwide arm, Rakefet Ginsberg, executive director of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism, said many Israelis feel utterly abandoned by the institutions that are supposed to protect them. It took as many as 20 hours for Israeli soldiers to arrive to defend Israelis hiding from Hamas terrorists on Saturday.

“All the support systems that we as a nation had inside this country collapsed,” Ginsberg said during a prayer service attended by nearly 800 people. “The feeling is like we’re orphans. One day we woke up and we understood that nobody, nobody, is taking responsibility for us.”

In this moment, she said, American solidarity and support is critical.

“You know, when we talk about trauma, one of the most traumatic things is that you’re alone,” she said. “Knowing that we’re not lonely right now and we have people with us, that’s a huge help.”

While many Israelis and American Jews are feeling hopeless or angry, some in the U.S. Jewish community are also calling for a renewed commitment to justice.

T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization representing over 2,300 rabbis and cantors in North America, on Thursday cautioned the Israeli military to adhere to international law in Gaza and expressed concern for civilians who lack food, water and medical supplies. It also called for the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza.

“We are deeply disturbed by those individuals, including some members of the Israeli government and a few American Jewish protesters caught on camera calling for brutal revenge on the people of Gaza,” said Jill Jacobs, the chief executive of T’ruah. “In our mourning, fear, and despair, we cannot lose our humanity.”

RELATED: As desperation in Gaza grows, Israel says it won’t allow aid to flow until Hamas releases hostages