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Cloud Hangs over Passover As U.S. Jews Anguish over Israel

April 3, 2002
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The news of the Passover eve suicide bombing at a Netanya hotel had particular resonance for members of Congregation B’nai Israel in Jackson, Tenn., as they, like the terrorist victims, sat down for a large Passover seder at a hotel.

“The fact that someone had walked into a seder just sent shockwaves through us all,” said Rabbi Margaret Meyer, spiritual leader of the small Reform temple that was having a communal seder.

“It was very, very hard to get that image out of our minds.”

As American Jews sat down this year to celebrate the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, the seemingly relentless spate of suicide bombings in Israel was — in the words of one rabbi — a “cloud” hanging overhead.

According to reports from rabbis across the country, many Jews found that the lines spoken every year — “Next year in Jerusalem” and “In every generation there are those that rise up against us” — had new meaning this year.

Rabbis said they spent the holidays attempting to comfort their congregants, while also calling for them to take action on Israel’s behalf.

The suggested action took many different forms, from extra prayers and a resolve to take on more commandments to incorporating Israel’s current situation into the discussion of slavery and liberation.

Rabbis also encouraged political activism and support. Sinai Temple in Los Angeles launched a multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign to aid Israeli victims of terror.

Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, regional director of Chabad of Illinois and spiritual leader of Chabad of Northbrook in the Chicago suburbs, said he is encouraging his congregants “not to get burdened by the crisis, but rather to get strength from it.”

“It’s a sign that we all have to do more,” he said. “We have to come together and be stronger.”

At Temple Emanu-El of West Essex, a Reform congregation in Livingston, N.J., Rabbi Daniel Levin used his Shabbat sermon over the weekend to urge members to take political action.

Levin distributed flyers with concrete suggestions, such as attending a local solidarity rally on Israel’s Independence Day, writing regularly to President Bush and other political leaders urging them to continue supporting Israel, and investing in Israel Bonds.

“We need to be able to look into our children’s eyes at next year’s seder, and in years to follow, and be able to tell them we did all we could to support our people in their time of need,” he said in the sermon.

Rabbi Avis Miller, of Adas Israel Congregation, a large Conservative synagogue in Washington, said that in her sermon on the first day of Passover, she encouraged congregants to make their seder discussions more meaningful by relating the Haggadah text to Israel’s current challenges.

She noted that Israel’s Jews have their day-to-day freedom curtailed by terrorism.

“I talked about how mitzrayim means narrow, and I can’t think of anything more constricting than not being able to go about your business,” she said, referring to the Hebrew word for Egypt.

Whether Orthodox or Reform, left-wing or right, talk of Israel dominated conversations in shul and — in many cases — at seders across the country.

Among those who came to the second seder last week at his Orthodox congregation, there “was a lot of confusion,” said Moscowitz of Chicago.

“People are not sure about strategy, what the end game is, what’s the plan,” Moscowitz said.

“Our answer is we also have to look at the spiritual side of things and the unity of the Jewish people. When the rest of the world sees the Jewish people being united, that will help and sends a powerful message to Israel.”

At Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Chicago, Rabbi Asher Lopatin said many congregants began to feel a bit better as the Israeli army launched a new offensive aimed at rooting out Palestinian terrorists.

“In my shul, people really think that there’s a military solution, that’s the overwhelming consensus,” Lopatin said. “We have a couple on the left, but the people who come every Shabbos and every morning feel there’s a military solution. So they’re relieved that Israel is going in.”

Adas Israel’s members run the political gamut — including many disheartened leftists, Miller said.

“There’s a frustration of what can we do. We don’t know where to put our emotional eggs.”

At Temple Emanu-El of West Essex, members have traditionally been supportive of the peace process in their support of Israel and are now feeling very discouraged, Levin said.

“If there were voices calling for moderation on the other side, there would be a much louder clamoring on our side to reciprocate,” Levin said.

“Those of us with more progressive leanings have been silenced because we feel it’s disingenuous to call for peace in this way when we don’t hear calls for peace on the other side.”

The mood at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, where congregants pledged over $700,000 for Israeli terror victims, was a sharp contrast to last year, when the temple was rocked with heated debate over Rabbi David Wolpe’s sermon suggesting that the Exodus had not literally occurred.

“This time I said in some ways would be nice if that’s what we could talk about, but there’s an emergency to be addressed, so this is what have to do this year,” Wolpe said of the fund-raising campaign.

Wolpe said the campaign will be matched by the Magbit Foundation, an Iranian Jewish foundation in Beverley Hills, Calif., and added that he hopes other synagogues launch similar campaigns.

“I want rabbis to get up and say we can’t impose peace, but our sisters and brothers are suffering and dying and we can help hospitals and trauma centers provide care for children who’ve been orphaned.”

While offering comfort and inspiration, rabbis — many of whom have family or friends in Israel — were battling their own demons.

Emanu-El’s Levin said he couldn’t help but feel “almost a sense of survivor’s guilt sitting down to my own seder here in New Jersey knowing there were so many sitting down to seder in Israel who were killed for that.”

Lopatin said dealing with his own sense of grief is “surprisingly hard.”

The suicide bombings “just put a cloud over Passover,” he said.

Despite the sorrowful mood, many rabbis said they and their congregants tried to put thoughts of Israel aside for at least part of the holiday and just enjoy reconnecting with families.

“A lot of what went on at the kiddush Shabbat afternoon, with the macaroons and sponge cake, was looking at grandchildren rather than talking about the heavier issues,” Miller said.

“I was juggling babies and preoccupied with them and it was a relief to be in community and it was a relief to be with family.”

Lopatin said that while congregants spoke about Israel a lot in synagogue, most reported trying to put the situation aside for a few hours during their seders.

“I think people just really wanted to enjoy the holiday,” he said.

Lopatin comforted himself — and tried to inspire congregants — with an image he saw on the news Sunday night of Israeli soldiers getting out of their tanks, putting on prayer shawls and praying.

“Really the attitude I want to give people is — we’re strong, we did have the Exodus and we are going to survive. There will be setbacks but we will overcome.”

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