For Jewish New Yorkers, Shared Grief Puts Divisions on Hold

New York’s Jewish community is the largest outside of Israel, and it is often polarized, particularly regarding Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. Since the brutal terror attacks on Israelis last Saturday, many New York Jews said they have put aside those differences.

This week, thousands of Jews from across the political and theological spectrum gathered outside the United Nations, many wrapped in blue and white Israeli flags, coming together both to grieve and to condemn the assault.

It was a show of unity that would have been hard to imagine previously, said Eric Goldstein, chief executive of UJA-Federation of New York. “To a large degree the Jewish community has come together in this moment.”

New York City has long had uniquely close emotional bonds with Israel, which strengthen in times of crisis — a relationship forged through the atrocities in Europe that led to the country’s founding and created much of New York’s Jewish community. Jewish New Yorkers have looked at Israel as an emblem of home and survival in a hostile world.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers have relatives in Israel, Mr. Goldstein said. When Israel comes under attack, Jewish New Yorkers — including those who might rarely think about Israel — feel the threat.

One measure of this relationship: Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams and Attorney General Letitia James all addressed the crowd outside the United Nations, supporting both Israel and the city’s Jewish community.

Yet that relationship has had its divisions, with many progressive congregations and secular Jews strongly criticizing Israel. This polarization has increased since the rise of the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a judicial reform program aimed at weakening Israel’s court system.

Amichai Lau-Lavie, an American-born rabbi who has been vocal about both his criticisms and his love for Israel, said it was time to put aside divisions and focus on shared grief.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie said he has seen Jewish New Yorkers come together to grieve across pre-existing political divides.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

“Right now people are hurting, and we just want to hold each other’s hand and let the divisions be in the back,” he said. “Our political position now makes no difference. Left, right, pro-occupation, anti-occupation, don’t know about it — we’re hurting and we’re shocked and we’re horrified and we want Israel to get through this.”

Particularly for liberal congregations, the attacks have prompted a reconsideration of the language they use in discussing Israel, said Rabbi David Ingber, who leads the progressive Romemu synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is the senior director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the 92nd Street Y, New York.

The rabbi said that many progressive Jews, who tend to support a free Palestinian state, are starting to confront “the naïveté of some of the tactics the progressive community has engaged in.”

“This has laid bare for many in the liberal community the dangers of anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist ideologies that are being waged in many liberal institutions, on college campuses and so on,” he said.

At Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s small, progressive congregation, Lab/Shul, members held a Zoom conversation to discuss, among other things, how to reconcile their grief and anger with their criticisms of Israel’s government.

Speaking a few days afterward, Stuart Himmelfarb, 71, who runs a small Jewish nonprofit agency, said he had been very critical of Israel, and of religious Jews going to the Temple Mount, which is also the site of one of the most holy mosques in Islam.

“All of that, on Saturday morning, got parked,” Mr. Himmelfarb said. “The blame game as well.” His focus now, he said, was “How in the world can the hostages be saved?”

Betsey Nevins-Saunders, 53, who runs a criminal defense clinic at Hofstra University’s law school on Long Island, said she was not willing to put aside her criticisms of Israel. But because of the scale and scope of the attacks, she said she needed some time to separate her grief from those criticisms.

Betsey Nevins-Saunders is navigating the grief she feels over the attack and the criticisms she has of Israel.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

“Right now we do not have to say, ‘Yeah, but’ — ‘Sorry for the pain in Israel, but,’” she said. “We need some time to grieve, and that grief has a legitimacy and right to exist. And sometimes we’re so quick to go to the ‘but’ part that we negate that opportunity to grieve, which might be a place for coming together in grief. If we felt we could just have a moment of grief, we might not have to be so polarized about it.”

For some in the congregation, the attacks have meant wrestling with internal conflict. Sarah Sokolic, Lab/Shul’s executive director, said she grew up being taught that Israel was good and Palestinians were bad, and has worked for the last two decades to promote more nuanced, progressive views.

Now, she said: “I find myself asking, How can I be a Zionist and be a person who does anti-oppression work at the same time? How can I teach my children about power, oppression, equity, empathy, otherness while also teaching them that Israel is our homeland, and that Israel has a right to exist and defend herself?” As she wrestles, she said, “I find myself leaning into my Zionist roots.”

Some of the most contentious conversations this week took place on college campuses, or among students on online platforms. Student groups at New York University School of Law and Columbia University issued statements supporting Palestinians and blaming Israel for the attacks, leaving many Jewish students feeling “disillusioned and very isolated,” said Yuda Drizin, the rabbi for the Chabad community at Columbia.

“That’s the main thing — loneliness,” the rabbi said, adding that students he had never spoken with before had approached him. “It’s across the political spectrum,” he said. “They say they walk through campus and they don’t know who thinks they deserve to be dead.”

Gabriel Weintraub, 21, a junior majoring in philosophy, said the campus climate since the attack had brought him closer to other Jewish students and to Israel. The school’s vaunted core curriculum, he said, included anti-colonialist texts that students were using to condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“I live with mostly non-Jews, and they don’t understand what I’m going through,” he said. “That’s not their fault. It’s comforting to have people here that I can relate to, who identify with Israel. Particularly when other people I follow on social media are posting that this” — meaning the attack in Israel — “is what decolonization looks like. I feel very isolated, because people are not supporting me.”

He added: “I’ve turned into an activist, which is not something that I ever identified as.”

Jack Lobel, 19, a Columbia sophomore, said that since the attacks, he had felt compelled to be more “visibly Jewish.” He started wearing his Star of David pendant outside his shirt and observing Jewish rituals more than previously. Until last Saturday, he said, “My reaction to seeing Jews around me was always, ‘Oh, cool, they’re one of me.’ Now I see Jews around me and I think, ‘Thank God.’ It makes me feel safer.”

In Borough Park, hundreds of members of the Hasidic community gathered for a prayer service on Thursday.Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

At a somber prayer gathering on Thursday afternoon in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, the atmosphere was reserved, without talk of politics or the Israeli government. Residents addressed Israel not as a political entity but as the spiritual Holy Land under attack.

“In good times you can come with me and sit on my dining room couch and speculate how to make Palestinian life easier,” said Alexander Rapaport, 45, a neighborhood activist who runs a network of soup kitchens. “In good times you can come and speculate and say maybe Netanyahu should have term limits or whatever.”

He added: “But that’s not an appropriate conversation in these days.”

Claire Fahy and Wesley Parnell contributed reporting.

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