(New York Jewish Week) – As reports from Israel and Gaza painted a picture of the region plunged into chaos, dozens of people came together halfway across the world to process the incoming news, share resources and offer a helping hand and a tight hug to anyone who might need it.
Held in the lobby of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, an impromptu support gathering for local Jews, Israelis and other New Yorkers in the metro area coincided with Saturday’s Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret celebrations, and took the place of cancelled pro-democracy rallies against the Israeli government.
Reactions around the room from attendees who requested to remain anonymous all spoke to the same feeling: “shocked,” several said. “Terrible,” said one man. “Dead inside,” another woman answered. “It feels like a movie,” said a third. They had come to the JCC for a variety of reasons: to be with other people in a time of fear; to learn more information about what is happening; to find out how they can help and to show their support for Israel.
On Saturday morning in Israel, as many civilians prepared for a day of Shabbat and holiday celebrations. Hamas militants launched a surprise attack out of Gaza, sending thousands of rockets into the country, taking over kibbutzim and kidnapping Israelis. Official reports count more than 300 Israelis dead and over 1,500 wounded, though numbers are expected to rise. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared “we are at war,” in response to the attacks.
The JCC is often a “meeting ground for when anything happens,” Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the organization’s CEO, told the New York Jewish Week. “It’s a huge privilege and responsibility of this space that we can open the doors to our community when something happens and we need to gather.”
There was no formal agenda for the meeting. Rather the hope was to provide a space for community members to simply be with each other in a time of crisis and uncertainty. Messages about the gathering were sent via WhatsApp and text message throughout the morning; as the afternoon wore on, more and more people showed up, decked out in rain gear and many with children in tow.
Huddled over coffee and donuts, attendees chatted quietly; some crying and hugging, others communicating with friends and family over WhatsApp, still more with their phones open to Israeli and American news broadcasts.
“We really just wanted to create a space where we can all come together and support each other and strengthen each other and not sit alone at home in front of the television,” Sivan Aloni, the regional director of the Israeli-American Council in New York, told the room. “So really, thank you everyone for coming. Because you’re not only supporting yourself, you’re supporting everyone here in the room.”
For 86-year-old Aryeh Aloni, who fought in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the war is the worst-case scenario imagined by those who, like him, have protested Israel’s current government for the last year — and experienced the last 75 years of Israeli and Palestinian history. “My parents are rolling in their graves,” he said. “I feel terrible.”
“It’s shocking. It’s cruel. Now what’s going to happen? Who will pay the price but thousands and thousands of innocent Palestinians and Israelis,” he added. Aloni said that while he has lived in the United States since the early 1960s, he has 21 first cousins living in Israel — and many of their descendants were called up from the military reserves earlier this morning.
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, the Israeli-American founding director of the Lab/Shul community, noted that the attack also coincided In Israel with Simchat Torah (which began in the Diaspora on Saturday evening).
“I’m 54 years old,” he said. “On Oct. 6, 1973, the middle of Yom Kippur, the war broke out. I was too young to know. My father and many other men were taken from the synagogue straight to the army. My memory is from the next day in our backyard, with the sukkah half-built and there was a siren. My mother dragged me by the arm to go to the shelter next door.
“I can’t believe that 50 years later, I have to explain to my children what’s going on and that Simchat Torah, the day in which we celebrate our sacred story and our continuity, now, like Yom Kippur, is forever marked with this continuing story of trauma.”
Lau-Lavie encouraged those in the room to share their emotions and not “keep things bottled up” or “sit in front of the phone and doomscroll.”
“This and other gatherings will help us,” he said. “Please hold each other. We’re not alone.”
Also present at the gathering was Tsach Saar, the deputy and acting Israeli consul general in New York. “It’s a very difficult day for all of us. There’s not too much to say, just to be together, I’m very happy to see the Israeli community and Jewish community being together and here for another,” Saar said. He offered a listening ear and to provide as many answers as he could give in the moment.
Some guests asked about canceled flights to and from Israel. Others wanted to know what they could do to help. “Where was the IDF?” Aloni, the veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, wanted to know, wondering like many observers why the military had not anticipated the Hamas assault. Saar answered that the situation is still being investigated.
A QR code was passed around the room for those who wanted to participate in support efforts, including hosting visiting Israelis whose return flights may have been delayed or canceled due to the war.
Across the city, communities were mobilizing to conduct responses. At Anshe Chesed, a Conservative congregation on the Upper West Side, an email was sent out to community members that the Simchat Torah dancing and festivities scheduled for Saturday night would be curtailed.
“New York City has the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel, and we stand side by side with Israel every day — but we do so with extra resolve today in light of Hamas’ unprovoked terrorist attacks directed at the country and its people,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a press release Saturday morning. “Today’s attack, coming at the end of what is supposed to be a celebratory time at the end of the Jewish High Holy days, is nothing more than a cowardly action by a terrorist organization seeking to undo that peace and divide us into factions. That won’t happen.”
The release added that there is “no credible threat” to the city at this time and that the Adams administration is in touch with Jewish leaders across the city. The NYPD is deploying additional resources to Jewish community organizations and synagogues across the city.
Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation o New York, was in Israel when the hostilities broke out. “We are working with our partners to provide urgent resources. New York — the largest Jewish community outside of Israel — is in unbreakable solidarity with Israel at war,” he said in a statement. “The global Jewish community stands in unity with the Israeli people and share their grief and anger at this callous, cowardly assault on Israeli citizens.”
The gathering at the JCC concluded with the entire room — which had grown to nearly 100 people over the course of an hour — rising together to sing Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” which means “The Hope.” “Our hope is not yet lost, It is two thousand years old,” they sang in Hebrew. “To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”