I was in Israel during the recent Jewish holidays when a senseless and brutal attack took place, targeting Israeli civilians of all ages, including men, women, and children. This tragic incident unfolded on the final day of the Jewish autumn holiday cycle, during Simhat Torah/Shmini Atzeret.
My Journey in Israel, October 7-12
On the morning of Saturday, October 7, I found myself at my nephew Rabbi Yair Silverman’s synagogue, partaking in the Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah festivities. This marked the culmination of our Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur-Sukkot holiday season. Simchat Torah is a special occasion where we commemorate the conclusion of the annual synagogue readings of the Torah, also known as The Five Books of Moses and also restart the reading cycle anew, beginning with the story of Genesis/Bereishit.
As we gathered before the service commenced, my nephew, Rabbi Silverman, delivered some unsettling news: there had been an attack on Israel. He suggested that anyone feeling the need for refuge should seek it out. Despite this, the majority of us chose to remain united in our determination to carry on with the synagogue services. The atmosphere remained festive and joyous throughout the day, and, as planned, we reconvened at 6 p.m. for a scheduled talk by one of our congregation members and the closing service.
That evening, as we turned on our electronic devices, we were informed that “Israel was at war” with Hamas in Gaza. Later that night, my nephew received a remarkable phone call from a Rabbi in Tel Aviv. A couple who had planned to marry in Tel Aviv the following day did not want to postpone their wedding. They inquired if my nephew could officiate at their marriage in Zichron Yaakov. This request is rooted in a long-standing tradition derived from rabbinic teachings, emphasizing the importance of not delaying joyous occasions, such as weddings or bar mitzvahs, even in the face of adversity, like unexpected loss or tragic events.
My nephew willingly took on the responsibility and, along with his congregation, orchestrated a wedding for the young couple and their entourage. The heartfelt ceremony took place the very next day, on Sunday, October 8, at 1 p.m., hosted within the walls of their synagogue. It was a momentous occasion attended by the bride’s extended family and close friends while adhering to our cherished traditions. The synagogue community, spanning across generations, joined in to celebrate this joyous event with the family. I was fortunate to capture a video, and the family has graciously permitted me to share these precious moments with you.
The next day, at noon, I made my way back to my apartment in Jerusalem, in the center of Israel among the Judean hills, a distance of an hour and a half drive from Zichron Yaakov, which is situated just south of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. As I arrived, my phone buzzed incessantly with updates from various WhatsApp groups, each one fervently discussing how to navigate the unfolding situation. They shared information about what had been cancelled, what should be done, and what was still scheduled to proceed. Among all these bustling groups, my pilates community proved to be particularly active, and I couldn’t help but notice that we were all set for a class the following day.
The highly anticipated concert featuring Ishay Ribo, a renowned artist known for his soul-stirring interpretations of biblical texts, originally slated to grace the grand stage of Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma, was cancelled, and ticket refunds were promptly issued.
As a sample of Ishai Rebo’s artistry, I share a snippet of his concert on a Jerusalem stage on November 26, 2019, retrieved from YouTube. Commencing the evening’s musical journey, he sings “Modeh Ani,” a heartfelt ode expressing gratitude for each new day, a prayer commonly recited at the dawn of the morning prayers. What stands out is the harmonious union of the audience, fervently joining their voices in this melodic prayer. These concerts transcend mere musical performances and simulate the essence of a collective spiritual experience reminiscent of a live prayer service.
We received guidance from government authorities through official media channels and WhatsApp groups, urging us to prepare our homes for the current reality. This involved ensuring everyone collected ample water, food, flashlights, and transistor radios for their bomb shelters. I ventured out with my friend Sarah Kraft, who graciously offered to drive to our nearby mall. Our visit led us to various establishments, including the electronics store, the hardware shop, the health food boutique, and the supermarket. In a quest to find transistor radios, we encountered an unexpected challenge, as the electronics store had run out of stock. Thankfully, they pointed us in the direction of a nearby place specializing in cell phones, located across the street from the mall. There, we managed to secure the last remaining transistor radios.
All of Israel united collectively to ensure the soldiers and the home front were well-equipped with vital resources. Some individuals gathered protective gear and ammunition, while others dedicated themselves to preparing meals for the 300,000 reservists called to duty on short notice. Simultaneously, many groups offered spiritual support through communal singing, dancing, and many Torah classes, both in-person and via Zoom. Additionally, they handcrafted “tzitzit,” undergarments adorned with fringes meant to serve as a poignant reminder of a Jewish man’s connection to the Torah. These were made available to any soldiers who desired them.
In my Jerusalem residence, we are fortunate to have a bomb shelter in the building, but my friend Sarah, who resides in a building without one, faced a challenging decision. We all had to make choices on how to prepare for the uncertain times ahead. I had a pre-scheduled Air Canada direct flight back to Montreal on Thursday, October 12. However, all international flights to and from Tel Aviv were abruptly cancelled, leaving El Al, the national airline of Israel, as the only carrier operating in and out of Ben Gurion airport.
The CBC announced that the Canadian government would provide evacuation services for Canadian citizens in Israel. I immediately reached out to my travel agent. She advised that if I purchased an El Al ticket to Zurich for $400, Air Canada would honour my ticket to continue my journey to Montreal. I decided to go ahead with this option. Before my departure, I entrusted Sarah with the keys to my apartment.
Since my El Al flight to Zurich arrived two hours later than scheduled, Air Canada arranged an overnight stay at an airport hotel in Zurich. It rebooked me on a 6 a.m. flight to Brussels, followed by a rapidly timed connecting flight to Montreal. Finally, I arrived in Montreal at 1 p.m. on Friday, October 13. My luggage did not accompany me on the journey; however, it was delivered a few days later.
Re-entry to Montreal
Upon arrival, I was warmly invited to join my cousins for a typical Friday night dinner. The following day, I could attend the Shabbat morning synagogue service in my customary synagogue with Rabbi Poupko. The atmosphere during the service was comfortably familiar, except for a brief additional prayer dedicated to remembering the hostages and a heartfelt rendition of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. Hatikvah, also known as the “Hope” or “Aspiration,” resonated with the collective yearning of the last two thousand years for freedom in our homeland, making it a poignant and cherished moment of the gathering.
My reunion with the congregation was filled with relief and joy. As we reconnected, we openly shared our experiences and the challenges we had faced since the onset of hostilities. In this tight-knit community, we all have family and friends in Israel, and many of us have connections to individuals who have tragically lost their lives. Our sense of unity and vigilance remained high as we grappled with the uncertainty of the situation.
That night began a weekly tradition as our community gathered for an additional prayer service dedicated to reciting Tehilim (Psalms). We gathered to listen to words of comfort and support from our rabbis and to recite our designated psalms communally. Reciting Psalms is a cherished Jewish tradition that provides solace and strength in challenging times. This weekly act of unity and faith will continue in the weeks to come for as long as required by the situation. Bacol Serlui, a prominent Israeli poet, esteemed literary critic, and dedicated educator of Hebrew literature, shared her perspective on the profound tradition of reciting psalms.
“At noon on that dark Shabbat of the holiday of Simhat Torah, one of our sons went off to war. I almost died of fear, trembling, and sorrow for the little we knew, from worrying about him and others. And what does a person do when he has no way out? He cries and screams his way through. And like my mother and all the other women, I sat with my Tehillim, reciting from beginning to end until the close of the holiday, until my tears dried up and the breaking news broke me once again. I recite the Psalms again and again and feel that the Tehillim are reading me, dubbing my fear and sorrow, giving me a voice. Three millennia ago a Jew sat and poured out the agony of his soul in times of peace and war, and here he reaches out a hand of prayer and speaks to our own day, until we will be redeemed.
Our influencers and Rabbis have eloquently reminded us that we are all now active participants in God’s divine mission, irrespective of whether we serve in the armed forces, contribute on the home front, or engage in contemplative prayer. They encourage a deepened dedication to mitzvahs, righteous actions, and prayer.
Furthermore, drawing inspiration from the timeless tale of Queen Esther, who, in the Purim narrative, called for a three-day communal fast before approaching King Ahashverosh, the Rabbis in Israel have decreed a similar three-day fast. This tradition mirrors the time when Haman had secured a decree to annihilate the Jewish community in Shushan, Persia (modern-day Iran), on an appointed day. Queen Esther, on a mission to avert this catastrophe, had implored the community to observe a three-day fast before her audience with King Ahashverosh. This moving narrative is commemorated annually during the festival of Purim, as recounted in the Book of Esther.
On Sunday, October 15, we marked Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish celebration of the new month. Several years ago, the women of Montreal initiated a remarkable tradition of hosting an exclusively female Rosh Chodesh service. Whenever I find myself in Montreal, I make it a point to attend this unique gathering. However, on this particular occasion, the service was even more special as we came together to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of a young girl who turned 12, a significant milestone in the life of every Jewish girl. Listening to her flawlessly chant the Torah portion for the day was an inspiring and moving experience. Surrounded by her classmates, friends, and family, we celebrated this important day in her life.
On October 16 and 17, I had the privilege of participating in a conference in Ottawa dedicated to addressing the issue of Antisemitism. This significant event was organized by CIJA – The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and had been planned before the outbreak of current hostilities. The conference served as a platform for a diverse group of 1,500 attendees, which included 250 high school and college students and professionals spanning from various fields, such as school board members, law enforcement officers, leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and dedicated researchers with expertise in combatting internet-based antisemitism. Among the attendees were grassroots advocates like myself, as well as notable politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Pierre Polievre, Jagmeet Singh, and Yves-François Blanchet, who delivered keynote addresses during the closing evening.
Throughout the conference, one testimonial left a profound impact on me. It was given by a dedicated teacher within the Ottawa Public School system, who courageously shed light on ongoing instances of relentless bullying targeting young Jewish children in public schools. These painful situations have persisted in recent years, raising serious concerns about the lack of intervention from school administrators.
On the second afternoon of the conference, attendees had the unique opportunity to engage in private meetings with Members of Parliament in their respective offices. I was fortunate to have a meeting scheduled with two esteemed parliamentarians: Sherry Romanado, MP representing Longueuil, Quebec, and Brad Redekopp, MP representing West Saskatoon in Saskatchewan. Both were exceedingly gracious with their time and genuinely eager to listen to our perspectives and insights. The depth of discussions during this conference is noteworthy, and I am fully dedicated to compiling a comprehensive report, which I will be delighted to share with you.
The Jewish community draws two profound lessons from the tragic events of World War II that resonate to this day: silence equates to complicity. And secondly, when individuals and communities unite, they become formidable agents of change.
After the conference, the Shaw Center’s front doors were secured, and we were directed to use alternative exits. I departed through the Rideau Center Mall, where I observed a noticeable police presence on street corners. While I awaited my departure, I couldn’t help but notice a group of individuals carrying a Palestinian flag as they passed by. It was only the following day that I discovered the presence of Palestinian protesters in the vicinity and how the police were diligently safeguarding both the Shaw Center and our conference.
Resilience and Unity: How the Jewish Community Responds
The Jewish people have a rich history of solidarity with our fellow brethren and displaying remarkable resilience in adversity. Throughout the centuries, Jewish communities have consistently demonstrated their commitment to caring for orphans, widows, and strangers. In Montreal, these noble endeavours are entrusted to the Federation- CJA, which tirelessly works to provide for those in need. Every year, the community comes together for a fundraising campaign, rallying to gather funds for these vital services. This year, our mission includes raising urgent funds for the war effort, which was initiated on the first day of the conflict.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending a remarkable fundraising concert featuring some of my favourite Jewish entertainers who generously lent their talents to this noble cause on concise notice. Among them, Milena Kartowski delivered an awe-inspiring rendition of “Stand by Me,” leaving a lasting impression on all attendees.
Our enduring traditions, commitment to Torah study, and alignment with Torah principles have provided sustenance for the Jewish people throughout millennia in both prosperous and challenging times. This emphasis on regular Jewish practice is pivotal in our collective efforts to support Israel’s existential war of survival, which includes the eradication of the threat to our people from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Whether inside or outside Israel, we are all dedicated to the common good, working towards the recovery of our captives and the elimination of threats like Hamas, ensuring the safety of our people.
The Jewish community recognizes that the enduring issue of antisemitism, the enduring hatred directed towards Jews, which serves as a motivating force for entities like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, is far from a recent development. This understanding is voiced in the following passage from our Passover seder.
She’ lo echad bilvad amad aleinu l’chaloteinu
Since (through the ages), not only one group has stood over us to destroy us.
V’ha Kadosh, Baruch Hu, matzileynu mi’yadam.
But the Holy One, Blessed Be, always saves us from their hand!
On April 7, 2020, the talented Ishai Ribo enchanted the audience with his rendering of this Passover classic, “Vehi She’amda.” With his mesmerizing vocals, he breathed life into the timeless lyrics, reminding us that throughout history, many have tried to bring harm to our people.
However, God’s miracles unfold only when we actively engage in the world. It is a collective responsibility to confront and oppose evil. Every individual, regardless of age, must join the ranks of the Divine army to combat those seeking to harm us. We must consistently contribute to goodness, both as individuals and as a unified community. This call is extended to both the Jewish and non-Jewish members of our society.
Only when we have successfully eliminated such malevolence can we hope to usher in the messianic times when “the lion shall lie down with the lamb” — a peaceful world committed to universal well-being, health, and happiness.
We pray daily that it comes soon, speedily and in our time!
Hazan Mutlu of Central Synagogue in NYC recorded this prayer that we all recite on behalf of our brethren, facing adversity, wherever they may be on land or sea. We pray that the boundless mercy of God frees them from distress to comfort, from darkness to light, and from slavery to redemption now, soon and speedily in our time.
“Hashta ba’agala uvizman kariv”
We are united, we are prepared, and we have no question that we will prevail against the evil forces threatening us!
Am Yisrael Chai: The Jewish People are alive and living, now and forever!