Jewish community finds myriad ways to demonstrate its support of Israel

Andrew Rehfeld is President/CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

By Andrew Rehfeld

Earlier in October a series of violent attacks by Palestinians against Israelis began to reshape life in Israel.  Our community has joined with others around the world to express our solidarity with the victims and condemn these acts of violence.  On Oct. 14, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis sent the following message to thousands in our community: 

“There may well be political motives by those who are acting. But there is no excuse or justification for the use of terror and violence against civilians in the pursuit of their political aims. We as a community need to clearly and decisively reject and condemn this kind of action, and call on others to recognize this for exactly what it is.”

Our community has not stopped there.  

The Jewish Federation established a webpage that includes statements by our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), along with information of how individuals can participate in local gatherings and provide resources to victims of terror in Israel. We have expressed concern and support for our friends and family who are living there.  At our board and committee meetings, we have read statements of solidarity, including a recitation of the victims’ names.  Our day schools have put on special programs—including one at the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, and a rally with students from all our Orthodox day schools at Epstein Hebrew Academy.  

Perhaps most importantly, our congregations have been a source of education and consolation where each of us, in his or her own way, has found time to pray, reflect, and learn about the situation. 

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With all this activity I have been asked recently, how does Federation and JCRC decide what is an appropriate response?  

When crises like this occur, the Jewish Federation and the JCRC work in partnership to lead. But even as we are called on to lead, our decisions are not made in isolation.  We rely on a multitude of voices, including the senior rabbinic leadership of our congregations and rabbinic associations.  And we listen to messages from those of you who contact us. 

Because situations change quickly during a crisis, our decision-making remains flexible and responsive and we add consultations to already scheduled community meetings.  I did this last week, for example, when many of our senior rabbinic leadership gathered for our bimonthly Rabbinic Advisory Council meeting. And our leadership consults regularly via email and conference call.  

This process has effectively mobilized our community’s support for the people of Israel and a secure democratic Jewish State.   

Last year for example, we gathered our community three times in a period of six weeks to mourn the loss of four teenagers brutally murdered, to learn about the ongoing Gaza conflict, and to join hundreds in solidarity to hear directly from the Israeli Consul General.  We stood in solidarity with Israel and its right to defend itself alongside leaders from throughout St. Louis, including Reverend C. Jessel Strong, then the president of the St. Louis Clergy Coalition.  And we raised almost $500,000 in funds that were directed to terror relief, including providing bomb shelters for anyone in Israel subject to rocket attack. 

Following last summer’s conflict, and thanks to the leadership of our immediate past board chair Patty Croughan, the Federation established a yearlong speakers series on Israel. The series featured multiple perspectives in non-ideological settings and attracted hundreds of people to increase awareness of the challenges and opportunities facing Israel today.    

This year, our process remains the same. We continue to assess the situation on a day-to-day basis and will provide information, support and opportunities for action as appropriate. 

Of course there will continue to be disagreements about the approaches we take in our steadfast support of Israel.  Some will want to rally, others to learn, others to pray, and others to advocate for a final just solution to the underlying political conflict. These views, and many others, are valid and understandable. 

Unfortunately, owing to the passion that many feel around these issues, rhetoric can quickly become overheated.  For those of us in leadership, this is simply part of the job.  Far more concerning is when that rhetoric bleeds into pejorative dismissals of, and antagonism towards, whole segments of our community.  To that end, I would urge us to explain our views with reason and argument, eschewing cant and vitriol. 

For our part, Federation and the JCRC will continue to take the broadest approach because we believe we are all in this together—even (or perhaps especially) when we disagree. 

Right now we are focused on the suffering of those in Israel.  As I write this, the crisis appears to be waning; but our gravest fear is that we are seeing the start of something much more substantial. Our most important unified message must remain: Violent attacks against civilians have no place even within a longstanding political conflict. 

We encourage you to learn more.  Follow the postings on the Federation’s webpage; respond to action alerts from the JCRC; track the news at the Jewish Light;  “Friend” us on Facebook.   Most importantly, engage your own congregations and communities where like-minded individuals can join in solidarity for prayer, reflection, activism and consolation at what is truly a troubling time.