Jewish Communities Stage Vigils to Humanize the Victims of Terror

The lawn of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation looks like a graveyard.

Placards picturing Israeli victims of terror jut from stakes in the ground while members of the Jewish community sketch the biographies of the more than 400 people killed in Israel over the past year.

The weeklong vigil is being held this week to coincide with Tisha B’Av, which begins Wednesday night, reinforcing the day of mourning for the destruction of Israel’s First and Second Temples.

Baltimore’s Tisha B’Av vigil, coordinated by the Baltimore Zionist District, an Israel awareness and advocacy group, is one of 20 being held across North America and Great Britain this week.

Baltimore’s program, held for the first time last year to commemorate the 135 Israelis killed by terror between September and last August, inspired the American Zionist Movement to spearhead similar efforts elsewhere.

Through its 25 member organizations and local Jewish community relations councils, the AZM contacted various communities, supplying them with programming materials, photos and biographical information of nearly 300 victims, and suggesting selections of poetry and psalms.

Each community has designed the program its own way, said Karen Rubinstein, executive director of the AZM.

The key theme is to show “the individualism of the people who have been killed.”

Indeed, the massive amount of Israeli deaths from terror can create a tendency to “just see numbers,” said Riva Gambert, director of the Israel task force of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay in Oakland, Calif.

In partnership with a local pro-Israel Christian group, Schindler’s Ark — founded by the niece of Oskar Schindler, a non-Jewish German who rescued more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis — the federation scheduled a four-hour afternoon vigil Wednesday at a synagogue in the heart of Oakland’s business district.

Dozens of people from both the Jewish community and Schindler’s Ark were planning to read the names of all those killed by terror in Israel since the outbreak of the latest Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000.

The group was planning to also incorporate songs and prayers, including the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Gambert hopes the program will attach the human dimension to the statistics “to make people realize there is a family and friends and colleagues and fellow students who have a loss now that that person is gone.”

In New York, the AZM partnered with the local Jewish community relations council to plan a daylong vigil Wednesday in Manhattan’s Union Square.

The names of each individual lost to terror since the outbreak of the intifada was to be read, with 80 singled out for more substantive memorialization.

Those 80 were selected because they “reflect the diversity of the victims,” said Rubinstein. They vary in age, gender and background, including, for example, an elderly leader of the Ethiopian community.

Their biographies were compiled primarily from information listed on Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Web site, which has posted pictures and biographies of the 571 victims who had been killed by Palestinian-sponsored terror between September 2000 and June 30, 2002.

Representatives of an additional 14 Jewish organizations in New York had signed up to read aloud the names and stories of the victims.

Local dignitaries, including city officials and the chaplains of the New York police and fire departments, were also scheduled to speak at the event.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the vigil has caught the attention of three local television stations and many passers-by, who stop to view the placards that were decorated by children in local Jewish summer camps.

The vigil which is running daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but will end early on Shabbat.

The bulk of the 84 hours spent reading the names of the victims was carved out to nearly all the Jewish organizations in Baltimore.

But according to Jerome Kiewe, executive director of the Baltimore Zionist District, one of the most compelling parts of the event has been the “open mike” sessions, when anyone can voice their feelings.

It “becomes something of a group therapy,” Kiewe said.

For 69-year old Shani Lerner, a past president of the Baltimore chapter of Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, reading aloud the names and biographies of the victims has made the tragedy more real.

“As you look at the life of those who were killed,” she said, “you realize” their hopes and dreams and “the things that they could have been, and they can’t be anymore.”

“I consider the people of Israel my family,” said Lerner. And for the pain that they suffer, “I feel, too.”

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