HUC-JIR Alumni Support Their Communities Through Israel-Hamas War
November 8, 2023
Even for clergy, educators, scholars, and Jewish professionals accustomed to supporting their communities day in and day out, the war in Israel has brought new challenges to their essential work. This month, “business as usual” often shifted to addressing new pressing needs of their communities at this pivotal moment. HUC-JIR alumni across the country shared some of the ways in which they have responded to lead their communities over this month of reflection, processing, and action.
As an immediate response, the Denver Jewish community organized a vigil held at Temple Emanuel, organized by Cantor Sacks, Rabbi Hyatt, and others from Temple Emanuel, in partnership with many other Jewish and community organizations. The 5,000 people in attendance in person and on livestream heard from clergy, government officials, and the community Sh’licha, an emissary from Israel.
When asked how the war has impacted her community, Rabbi Hyatt, Associate Rabbi at Temple Emanuel, says, “It feels like all other life has stopped – that we are in a state of mourning, praying, galvanizing, supporting, and processing, and that we are struggling to continue with any of our normal activities and events. But I am seeing enormous community response and the consistent need to gather and to process, which is heartbreaking and beautiful.” She is always in touch with her former classmates, and especially now, to share resources and best practices.
Rabbi Delson of Temple Shomer Emunim joined the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo, other congregations, and hundreds of community members to stand in solidarity with Israel at multiple rallies. She says, “I have spoken to our middle schoolers during religious school classes and provided an open space for teens to talk about their experiences. There is so much misinformation out there that these young people and adults are taking as fact that it is imperative that we have face-to-face conversations to dispel myths and support each other. So many of our teens and college students feel isolated. There are no easy answers to the antisemitism that our teens and college students are facing.”
Cantor Reinwald of Temple Sinai continues to evaluate the situation and offer what his congregants need in that moment. He shares, “There is a lot of concern and sadness as to be expected.” The congregation joined community rallies for Israel and like many across the world, had an Israel-focused Shabbat service the weekend following the initial attack. Cantor Reinwald adds, “As is often the case, many of my cantorial colleagues are continually discussing what they are using musically and programmatically in our online forums, and colleagues and friends worldwide are continually reacting to everything that is happening.”
The week after the war began, Rabbi Franklin of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, Cantor Debra Stein ’86 also of the Jewish Center, and Rabbi Dan Geffen ’12, ’14 of Temple Adas Israel at Sag Harbor led a rally in solidarity with Israel, joined by elected officials, interfaith colleagues and communities, and the entire Jewish community. The Jewish Center was also quick to plan a day of stress relief and relaxation to help congregants cope with the heightened anxiety caused by the events in Israel.
Rabbi Franklin reflects, “From the morning of Simchat Torah when I had to address my congregation only hours after learning about the attacks, to our rally for Israel, to media interviews, I’ve been channeling my emotions and trying to put words to the confluence of anger, sadness, pain, and terror that so many of us have been feeling.”
He continues, “We’re all doing our best to support our communities right now as clergy. We’ve been pushed to the brink with countless phone calls from congregants who need support, as well as people who are complaining that we are not doing enough. What often gets forgotten is that rabbis need the support of their community as much as they need to support the community.”
Rabbi Franklin says they welcomed two Israeli families who fled Israel. “We’ve been helping them get acclimated to life in East Hampton, making them cards, bringing them challahs on Shabbat, and even having their kids join our Sunday learning program.”
In Minneapolis, Ted Flaum ’88, CEO of the St. Paul Jewish Federation, Cantor Tamar Havilio ’96 and Rabbi David L. Locketz ’04 of Bet Shalom Congregation, Cantor Inbal Sharett-Singer ’15, Rabbi Marcia A. Zimmerman ’88, and Rabbi Jennifer Hartman ’10 of Temple Israel Minneapolis, Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker ’97 and Rabbi Esther Adler ’87 of Mount Zion Temple, and Rabbi Jill E. Avrin ’13 were all involved in putting together an immediate joint community prayer gathering.
Rose was in attendance as a community member. He shares, “I was heartened to join in showing support for Israel and for each other. It’s extremely important during times like these for our 4,000+ HUC-JIR alumni to convene people to support each other and craft ways to respond – especially to localized antisemitism.”
In the heart of the US, Rabbi Stern of Temple Beth Sholom, has been frequently featured in the local media to bring awareness of the war to the public. He has held structured opportunities for congregants to learn more about the evolving situation and space to express their feelings and uncertainty about what comes next. He, too, has been in touch with fellow alumni and says, “I have had many conversations with Year-In-Israel classmates about our stress and despair about so many Israeli civilians being murdered, which I never thought I would see in my lifetime, and the need to rally support for Israel in its conflict.”
Sagarin, who serves as Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Beth Israel, describes her congregation as a Reform Zionist community that has only gotten stronger in the days since the war began. Shinshinim, Israelis volunteering to serve communities in America in educational roles for a year of national service, are a special part of their community and former shinshinim are facing a difficult reality back in Israel. Sagarin organized a video call with several of them, an uncommon but meaningful opportunity. She says, “It was good for the children to see them safe. From the first week of the war, we have offered drop-in experiences for parents to come and share their anxieties and concerns. These have been well-attended and I feel have brought families closer together, and real friendships are being forged.”
She continues, sharing how she has been affected even more personally. “In the opening days of the war, a young mom in the school brought me cookies. She knows we have an Israeli child and wanted to do something to bring me comfort. I was quite literally brought to tears, is there any kinder act from one mom to another? My heart was so full.”
At Temple Israel in New York City, keeping the congregation educated and engaged with Israel has been a longtime priority of Rabbi Gelfand and Cantor Altshul. Following the attacks, they immediately turned to longtime partners and experts like David Harris and IsraAID to provide new insight and context for the community. In the ensuing month, they have brought their kehillah kedosha together for almost daily learning sessions, discussions with Israeli clergy, workshops on combating antisemitism, and provided opportunities to join in citywide protests and vigils, all under the banner of “WE STAND WITH ISRAEL!”
“We need to do better to educate our Jewish youth. All of us. As clergy, educators, and as parents: we need to lead by example, discuss Israel at home, visit Israel, join synagogues, and create positive meaningful Jewish experiences for our youth; it’s not enough just to be Jewish, we need to ‘Live Jewish.’ The time has come for Jewish people to speak up and this time for ourselves,” said Cantor Altshul.
Rabbi Schaffer, Director of The Jewish Learning Center at Hamakom LA, says, “As professionals, we were all reeling from what we had seen happen in Israel. We knew that if we were affected so deeply, the families in our community were feeling traumatized as well.” A rabbi-educator, he quickly pivoted and within 48 hours put together a Zoom call for all the parents of students in their schools. “We had parents of preschoolers, elementary schoolers, and teens all coming together in solidarity to share our pain and anguish. For the first time since the crisis had started, we all felt a little less alone.”
Dr. Putzu, Associate Professor of the Department of Languages, Cultures, and Religions at Missouri State University, says that he is not involved in the local Jewish community, but he has been working to share information with students and friends, connecting with loved ones in Israel, and offering support on a personal level and as a scholar of Jewish Studies. He says, “This war has had a very strong impact on me, having lived in Nir Yitzhaq, one of the kibbutzim attacked on October 7, and being close with so many people in Israel,” says Dr. Putzu. “I have been in touch with all of my many friends and colleagues in Israel, with the students I took to Israel this past summer, and with colleagues in the US and Europe who work in Jewish Studies.”
Dr. Putzu notes, “Over the past couple of weeks, both the group of people I lived on the kibbutz with and a host of fellow members of Hashomer Hatzair from the 1990s created or revamped group chats to reconnect and support each other in these difficult times. The people involved live in Israel, the US, and various parts of Europe, and some of us hadn’t heard from each other in decades. We were instinctively reminded that our time in the Hashomer Hatzair bonded us for life. With my fellow Nir Yitzhaq friends, we shared updates and information about the people who were killed or kidnapped during the October 7 attack, reached out to the displaced survivors, and donated money to help with the rebuilding of the community.”
Dr. Langer, Professor of Jewish Studies; Director of Graduate Studies, Theology Department; and Associate Director, Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, has started to work more closely with Hillel to help with pressing needs for student leaders, like generating text for a multifaith student prayer for peace and providing a liturgical voice at a Hillel-sponsored vigil. She is on the advisory board of a new affinity group for faculty, staff, and administrators, whose initial meeting was altered to respond to the war.
What are you doing to support your community? We’d like to know and elevate your work. During these difficult times, we should turn to one another for support, ideas, and opportunities for collaboration. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.