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News Highlights Message to Our Community

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld

This message was shared with the Hebrew College community on October 16, 2023 and published by JTA in the article “How do we keep the worst days in the last 50 years of Jewish history from tearing us apart?” on October 17, 2023.

Like so many of you, I spent much of last week searching for language to describe and respond to the new reality in which we find ourselves. As Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote last Thursday in the Financial Times, “I look at people’s faces and see shock. Numbness. Our hearts are weighed down by constant burden. Over and over again we say to each other: it’s a nightmare. A nightmare beyond comparison. No words to describe it. No words to contain it.”

For me personally, some important language came unexpectedly while I was sitting in shul this past Shabbat morning. Our teacher R. Allan Lehmann was serving as gabbai at our minyan, and as he offered a mi she’berach for each person who had been called up for an aliyah la’torah, he concluded with the words, “b’toch she’ar avelei ameinu” — “among all the mourners of our people.” It was an exquisitely simple and profound gesture of pastoral care. I hadn’t understood until that moment how deeply I needed to be named as a mourner, among all the mourners of our people. I wept with recognition and relief.

Many of you have been reaching out, wondering what to think, what to say, what to do.

Let’s not let the worst days in the last 50 years of Jewish history fragment us.

Sadly, we know we are only at the beginning of a very long, difficult, and uncertain road. A road that will make new demands of all of us as Jewish leaders. Heartbreakingly, it is also a road riddled with the risk of communal rupture and fragmentation — at a time when we so desperately long to come together, to hold one another and to be held, in our shared grief, fear, and love.

I have no road map for this moment, and I am wary of anyone who says they do. But I want to share some thoughts on what I believe this terribly dark hour for our people asks of us.

  1. Allow yourself to be at a loss for words. The speechlessness that we feel in the face of what we have witnessed is a sign of humanity and of humility. Honor it, protect it, do not rush past it.
  2. Listen to the moral voice within you that knows there is no context, no intellectual contortion that can possibly justify Hamas’ acts of horror. These are acts that deserve nothing but our unequivocal condemnation. I have asked myself, again and again and again over the course of the last week, why this seems so hard for some good people to do (I’m not even talking about the shocking celebration of these acts in some quarters). There are many answers to this question, some more sinister than others. I recommend that you listen to the very powerful sermons given on this topic this past Shabbat by Rabbi Sharon Brous (We’ve Lost So Much. Let’s Not Lose Our Damn Minds – Rabbi Sharon Brous | Bereishit 5784 / 10.15.2023 – YouTube) and Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (Israel At War: In the Beginning There Was The Word | Rabbi Angela Buchdahl – YouTube).To everything Sharon and Angela so eloquently express, I would only add – I suspect that, for some, blaming the actions of Hamas on Israeli occupation is a way of trying to hold onto a world that makes sense, a world in which all hate flows from hurt, a world in which we can somehow keep horror at bay. I understand this impulse, but I believe its impact is insidious — blaming victims of unbearable cruelty for their own suffering, for the sake of preserving our own ideological and moral comfort and convenience.
  3. Let yourself be uncertain about what Israel should do next in this impossibly painful and frightening moment. We are already being bombarded with requests to sign petitions, make statements, and participate in protests. Many of us understandably feel a growing sense of urgency as conditions worsen in Gaza and we fear an even more severe humanitarian crisis. I trust that every member of this community longs desperately to do what is possible to prevent further suffering and death of innocent civilians, both Palestinian and Israeli. I hear the same longing from my Israeli friends and family as well. Let us be very, very humble as we share ideas about how best to do so. Beware of facile answers.
  4. Do not equate concern for Palestinian suffering and the loss of innocent Palestinian lives with betrayal of the Jewish people. Let us not allow the inhumanity of Hamas to strip us of our basic humanity. Here I share the powerful words of my colleague, Rabbi Shawn Ruby, an Orthodox rabbi who lives in Zichron Yaakov. We’ve been friends and part of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship community together for the last 30 years. Last Monday he wrote these words to the Bronfman list serve (shared here with his permission):
  • I live in Israel. I have a child in the IDF. I am attending the funeral tomorrow morning of a young man whom I have known since he was a child who was killed on the first day of fighting. I am in unbearable pain.
  • That said, I have no problem with people raising concern, mourning, sadness, or horror about the loss of life in Gaza alongside with that on our side. The human tragedy there is overwhelming. Recognizing that does not diminish from the Jewish/Israeli tragedy.
  • For all of us reacting one way or the other to each other, let’s take a breath, and exercise some compassion and forgiveness for those of us who are reacting to a horrifying situation by being more unwilling to hear the other side than usual. Let’s not let the worst days in the last 50 years of Jewish history fragment us.

Let’s not let the worst days in the last 50 years of Jewish history fragment us.

Every day, I hear stories from friends and students and alumni in Israel about the ordinary and extraordinary ways in which people are caring for each other — through daily acts of kindness, concrete expressions of hesed. I am inspired and in awe.

Those of us living on this side of the ocean are not living through what they are living through there, but we are feeling our own grief, fear, loneliness, and pain. Let us learn from their example. As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Mishael Zion, wrote to his community in Jerusalem last week: “Seek to be in the company of others who can support you and share their warmth with you. In addition, seek to give and act in support of others . . . allow yourself to experience every emotion that arises, but try not to dwell on it too much. Instead, focus on actions and activities that are aimed at doing good and are spiritually uplifting.”

Sending compassion and strength to everyone on this list, and special hizuk to those of you living in Israel. Thank you for staying in touch as you are able. Our love and prayers are constantly with you.

Rak besorot tovot.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld looking out a windowRabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is president of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. She writes and teaches widely, weaving together Torah, rabbinic commentary, and contemporary poetry and literature in her wise and compassionate approach to the complexities of the human experience and the search for healing and hope in a beautiful but fractured world.

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