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Synagogues focus on building compassion for all those suffering from the Israel-Hamas conflict

Synagogue leaders and members are working to cultivate compassion for the many sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
Synagogue leaders and members are working to cultivate compassion for the many sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

At Congregation Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, Calif., Rabbi Alex Kress welcomes people to a casual Sabbath service on a recent Friday night.

“Shabbat shalom,” he says. “We are going to start our service with candles.”

Kress lights the candles and a warm glow illuminates his face and the room. The cantor and congregation sing in the Sabbath. Children squirm in pews and wander the aisles. Outside, construction on a new security fence is mostly done. The fence is a recent sign of the times. These past seven months have been hard on Kress and his congregation.

“As I think about how to keep the tent up for everyone to find shelter under,” he says, “I've leaned much more towards pastoring than towards preaching any positions, any politics.”

Because politics aren’t, Kress says, what his people need. Rather, they long for a sense of security, and they need to be comforted in a time of rising antisemitism.

“Many Jews in my community don't feel safe,” Kress says, “and that is a new experience for many of them, that often arrests their ability to be compassionate or show empathy for the other side in this moment.”

This moment is one in which family and friends in Israel have been have been killed, taken hostage or displaced. The American Jewish community makes up less than two and a half percent of the U.S. population, and that minority status has been thrown into stark relief since the Hamas October 7th attack on Israel and the subsequent protests across this county. Many Jews take personally pro-Palestinian campus protests and criticism of the way Israel is waging its military campaign in Gaza.

“I feel as a rabbi a huge pastoral job to hold their hand through that moment and also guide them towards that compassionate light that we know we can achieve again,” says Kress, “even though we've had this horrible thing happen that has hurt us and stopped us from being our truest, best selves.”

Best selves that Kress says his congregants long to be as much as they long to feel safe. The word compassion comes up often — both as a wish that more non-Jews felt compassion for Jews after the killing of more than 1,200 people in Israeli and the taking of hundreds of hostages on Oct. 7th and also as a wish for more Jews to articulate their compassion for the plight of Gazans.

Upstairs from Kress’s office, Beth Shir Shalom board president Deb Novak is setting up for the congregation’s annual fundraising gala. She’s a nutrition instructor at Santa Monica College and has raised her family in this congregation. Her kids are now in high school. Novak says she’s seen a broadening of concern beyond the Jewish community in the months since the Hamas attack.

“Everyone in our congregation feels very strongly about the safety of the people in Israel and getting the hostages out,” she says, “but also the safety of the innocent people in Gaza.”

Novak says at her synagogue these days there’s a lively conversation about the war that often starts like this: “There has to be a better way than the severity of the destruction and the harm that is happening to the people in Gaza.”

But Novak says that sentiment isn’t often talked about publicly because of a desire among American Jews to express solidarity with Israel and with Israeli Jews in the U.S.

As difficult as the conversations are, they’re taking place, says Beth Shir Shamon member Al Courey, who also serves on the synagogue board.

“You can't really talk about October 7th without talking about the suffering of the Palestinians,” he says, “not just the current suffering, but the sufferings since the founding of the state of Israel.

Courey is a professor emeritus of biochemistry at UCLA. He’s acutely felt the conflict in recent weeks, with pro-Palestinian protests on his campus devolving into violence after a group of pro-Israel counter-protestors attacked the student encampment.

“I'm actually an Arab-American,” Courey says, “and so that certainly heightens the compassion I feel for the suffering of the Arabs in Gaza right now.

It’s a compassion that grew even more poignant for him earlier this spring as his family observed Passover.

“When you talk about the ten plagues, you dip your finger into the wine and put a drop of wine on your plate for each plague to remind you of the suffering of the Egyptians,” he says. “Somebody suggested we should put an 11th drop of wine on our plate to remember the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.”

Courey’s family did, in fact, dip their fingers an 11th time.

Congregations Pray for Israel and the Palestinian People

Across the country, at Temple Ner Tamid, in Bloomfield, N.J., with Sabbath services underway, Rabbi Marc Katz stands to introduce a prayer.

“As we do each week,” he says, “we add a special prayer for the state of Israel — a prayer that speaks to all of the many complexities of this conflict.”

It’s a lengthy petition thanking God for the Jewish state and asking for its protection. Among the lines that stand out in these times is this one:

“Master of compassion,” Katz prays, “help us to hold the humanity and the heartache of the Jewish people, of all the residents of the state of Israel, while also holding the humanity and dignity of the Palestinian people.”

Addressing the humanity and dignity of Gazans in the liturgy itself, says Katz, helps cultivate a heightened moral sensitivity within the congregation. He points to a recent example of that concern playing out.

“We had a fundraiser for a medevac unit in the [Israeli] Air Force,” Katz says, “And by this time, Israel had already started dropping bombs on Gaza. And although we purposely picked a medevac unit, the fact that we were giving money to the Air Force caused some congregants to push back.”

A pushback Katz says he welcomes as it shows his congregation is engaging deeply with the Israel-Hamas War at an ethical level.

“It is possible – and I do believe the majority of rabbis feel this way – to criticize Israel's actions through love and to be proud Zionists” says Katz, “and to care about Israel and to love Israel and at the same time to be able to see Israel truly for what it is, in the same way that we see family members truly for what they are.”

One can love family members while at the same time being deeply troubled by their actions.

An ancient story provides a modern path to compassion

In west Los Angeles, congregants at IKAR sing in the Sabbath with a musical round that swells and resonates until it fills the room. IKAR is a community of more than twelve hundred families, led by Rabbi Sharon Brous. In recent weeks, she’s been preaching about campus protests.

“Last week,” she says standing before her congregation, “I argued here that antisemitism has been normalized in parts of the solidarity movement and that it threatens not only our Jewish students, but also the righteous call for justice for Palestinians.”

Her sermons have also been critical of the violence pro-Israel protestors perpetrated at UCLA. She stresses the importance of holding these two ideas together.

Longtime IKAR member Shawn Landres says the news over the last several months has sparked lots of discussion within the congregation.

“I've talked to so many people who really are leaning into Jewish safety or peaceful protest,” he says, “but the most thoughtful voices are the ones that are holding two thoughts.”

Two thoughts about the very same thing, says Landres, who works as a civic strategist.

“For me, one of the Rorschach tests is “Free Palestine.” I'm for a free Palestine. I'm also for a free Israel,” he says. “The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you're not going to have the one without the other.”

What makes this current moment so difficult is that the two realities that seem diametrically opposed are also two realities that are irreducibly true.

The task of confronting those truths has focused the work of Rabbi Brous as a religious leader.

“How do you hold both your commitment to stand with those people whose loved ones have been in Gaza now for an unthinkable amount of time, suffering in all kinds of ways” she asks. “And also know that any child that is killed in our effort to retrieve those hostages or any innocent who is killed, that itself is a moral catastrophe? And that is the challenge of our time.”

It’s a challenge Brous navigates with the help of a story found in the collection of early rabbinic teachings knows as the Mishnah. It’s a story she’s talked and written about extensively, including in her recent book The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Mend Our Broken Hearts and World.

“Jews used to come from all across the land, and they would ascend to Jerusalem and ascend the Temple Mount,” she says, “and they would circle around the perimeter of the courtyard counterclockwise, except for someone with a broken heart.”

The broken hearted would enter the same way, but circle the courtyard in the opposite direction.

“And this sacred encounter,” says Brous, “would occur between the broken hearted and the people who had a little bit of strength in them, in which they would look into each other's eyes. And ask, ‘Tell me what happened to your heart?’”

Brous believes those early rabbis tell this story to teach that the obligation is not to run away or retreat from relationships – even difficult ones – but rather to look with compassion and curiosity upon those suffering “especially when we feel alienated by them,” she says. “And lean toward one another with love and with grace.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.