Rehfeld: ‘We recognize suffering of others even in the midst of our own despair’

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., is  President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. 

By Andrew Rehfeld

Adapted from remarks delivered at the Jewish Federation’s community briefing July 21 at the Kopolow Building (see related story on Page One) 

Less than three weeks ago our community gathered to memorialize three boys who had been kidnapped and killed because of who they were and what they represented. Today, we gather because of a situation that appears to be intensifying and growing, one in which Israel has faced 1,800 rocket attacks since July 8. 

We have watched in distress as Hamas has put its civilians in harm’s way for the sake of its own political agenda. And we have watched in distress as Israel is lambasted for successfully protecting its civilians, taking a targeted and limited approach in its response, and finally entering into Gaza when it felt it had no choice to stop the terror reigning down upon it. 

Our distress continues. 


On behalf of our community and reasonable people everywhere: We abhor Hamas’s indiscriminate targeting of citizens and its use of its own citizens as human shields. We are saddened by the choice of Hamas to construct a network of underground, fortified tunnels to conduct terror attacks on Israel rather than providing safe shelter for their own citizens. And we are horrified by the use of human shields as a tactic of war. We support Israel’s right to self-defense and recognize, as President Barack Obama did earlier this week again that, “No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders, or terrorists tunneling into its territory.”

Yet tonight is not a political rally. We will not march. We will not chant slogans. We will not wave signs. And we will not simplify a situation that is anything but simple. We are here to show support and solidarity with all the people of Israel, our Jewish brethren and also the Arabs, Christians and Muslims, who are no less affected by Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket attacks. 

As I write this, more than a dozen Israeli soldiers have lost their lives in a conflict that Israel did not want. Rockets have killed Israeli civilians and damaged millions of dollars of property. Most important, in Israel, millions of people live under the terror and fear of constant rocket attack. These attacks have created substantial needs, needs for humanitarian assistance to move children to safe shelter in the north of Israel; to offer trauma counseling; to provide shelter to distressed populations; to provide outreach to seniors and those less mobile to provide some measure of security; to provide economic relief to small businesses suffering as citizens remain fearful to be outside, and tourists stay home. 

The fact that we gather here today to recognize and offer support for those in Israel who are suffering the sheer terror of rocket attacks in no way minimizes the suffering of others. Today, hundreds of Palestinian civilians are dead, thousands are wounded, and an untold number have lost property and loved ones, and they continue to live in despair. Gaza has been described as an open-air prison and we must recognize the conditions that have brought about such desperation. We do not shy away from that complexity, nor from the moral issues that those conditions raises. Indeed it is our Jewish ethical teaching that mandates we recognize the suffering of others even in the midst of the despair of our own. 

This recognition of the suffering of others is central to what it means to live a Jewish life. We may have a special obligation to other Jews as Jews, for as we see today few others will. But we are also required by the values that make Judaism worth endorsing to care for all in need: Our tradition teaches that we are all made in the image of God. We feel the suffering, and are required to act; we hear the cry and we are required to respond. We recognize that this suffering has been long standing and must end.

Let us take a moment of silence, then, to recognize the Israeli soldiers who have given their lives to defend the citizens of Israel, and to honor the memory of all civilians who have been killed in the last three weeks. 

Ultimately, though, what can we do? To repeat, we will not trivialize the sacrifice and suffering with chants and slogans, marches and banners. We will instead provide an analysis that brings understanding and allows us to be clearer advocates for a world of peace, right and justice. We will collectively raise funds to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need using a network of established agencies that can deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need in Israel, particularly in the south; agencies like the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Israel Trauma Coalition. Every dollar raised for the Israel Emergency Campaign will be given to on-site service providers delivering immediate assistance. 

Indeed, we would invite the Palestinian community here in St. Louis and across the country to take a similar humanitarian approach. Stop the protests, marches and inflammatory rhetoric that demonize Israel and Jews more generally. Use your energies to organize existing aid institutions to deliver relief from suffering of your own people. Let us recognize our shared interest in relieving of all suffering, even as we mobilize to serve our own people. 

Tonight, we are here to stand with the people of Israel and use our existing network that Federation has long put in place. John Ruskay, CEO of the Federation of NY City has said that Federation was able to deliver relief to its community immediately after the attacks on September 11th because it was already there on September 10th. Your continued support of Federation’s annual campaign has created a network of agencies that will deliver our assistance immediately and pressingly to those in need. Based on the growing needs of this conflict, we have set a goal of $250,000 to support the Israel Emergency Campaign. I hope you will stand in solidarity with the people of Israel in their time of need and join me in answering this call. 

To make a contribution to the Israel Emergency Fund, visit