Embarking on a journey through Israel from October 7-12, I found myself entwined in a tapestry of emotions, events, and the Jewish community’s resilience. The backdrop was set against the celebration of Simchat Torah, a jubilant occasion marking the completion of the annual Torah readings and the commencement of a new cycle.
I joined my nephew Rabbi Yair Silverman’s synagogue on October 7 for the Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah festivities. This marked a significant end to the Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur-Sukkot holiday season. Simchat Torah is a unique event that signifies the completion of the annual synagogue readings of The Five Books of Moses, or the Torah, and the start of a new cycle with the story of Genesis/Bereishit, narrating the tale of the world’s creation.
Before the service started, Rabbi Silverman shared unsettling news about an ongoing attack in Israel. He offered refuge to anyone needing to return home but committed to continuing the service. Despite this news, most of the congregation stood together and decided to proceed with the synagogue services. The atmosphere remained festive throughout the day, and we reconvened at 6 p.m. for a scheduled talk by a congregation member and the closing service.
Later in the evening, we learned that Israel was in conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Rabbi Silverman received a remarkable phone call from a Rabbi in Tel Aviv that night. A couple scheduled to marry the next day insisted on proceeding with their wedding in Zichron Yaakov. This request was based on rabbinic teachings that emphasized not delaying joyous occasions, such as weddings or bar mitzvahs, even in the face of adversity.
A Joyous Wedding Amidst Adversity
Rabbi Silverman took on the responsibility and orchestrated a wedding for the young couple and their entourage with the support of his congregation. The heartfelt ceremony took place the very next day, on Sunday, October 8, at 1 p.m., hosted within the walls of their small synagogue housed in a school. The bride’s extended family and close friends attended the momentous occasion while adhering to cherished traditions. The synagogue community, spanning generations, celebrated the joyous event with the family, inviting strangers to participate as guests. This is a customary practice in the joy of a wedding celebration. Fortunately, I captured a video of this event, and the family graciously permitted me to share these precious moments with you.
Return to Jerusalem and Changing Realities
I drove back to my apartment in Jerusalem the next day, around noon. It’s located in the heart of Israel, amidst the picturesque Judean hills, and it takes about ninety minutes to reach from Zichron Yaakov, which lies just south of Haifa along the Mediterranean coast. When I arrived, my phone buzzed incessantly with updates from various WhatsApp groups, each one fervently discussing how to handle the unfolding situation. They shared information about cancellations, recommendations, and what events were still on track. Among them, my pilates community was particularly active, already planning for a class the following day.
My tickets for the highly anticipated concert featuring Ishay Ribo, a renowned artist celebrated for his soul-stirring interpretations of biblical texts, were initially scheduled for October 8 at Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma. However, they were cancelled, and refunds were promptly issued. To taste Ishay Ribo’s artistry, here’s a snippet from one of his concerts on a Jerusalem stage, dated November 26, 2019, retrieved from YouTube. Kicking off the evening’s musical journey, he performs “Modeh Ani,” a heartfelt ode expressing gratitude for each new day, a prayer commonly recited at dawn. What’s remarkable is the harmonious unity of the audience, fervently joining their voices in this melodic prayer. These concerts transcend mere musical performances; they evoke the essence of a collective spiritual experience akin to a live prayer service.
We were instructed by government authorities through official media channels and WhatsApp groups to prepare our homes for the current reality. This included ensuring everyone had enough water, food, flashlights, and transistor radios for their bomb shelters. I went to the mall with my friend Sarah Kraft, who offered to drive. During our visit, we explored various establishments such as the electronics store, hardware shop, health food boutique, and supermarket. While searching for transistor radios, we faced an unexpected challenge: the electronics store was out of stock. Fortunately, they directed us to a nearby place specializing in cell phones, where we purchased the last two radios available.
People in Israel came together to ensure soldiers and civilians were well-equipped with essential resources. Some gathered protective gear and ammunition, while others prepared meals for the 300,000 reservists called to duty at short notice. Meanwhile, many groups provided spiritual support through communal activities like singing, dancing, and Torah classes, both in-person and online via platforms like Zoom. Additionally, they crafted “tzitzit,” undergarments adorned with fringes to symbolize connection to the Torah, which were offered to any soldiers who wanted them.
In my Jerusalem residence, we are fortunate to have a bomb shelter in the building. However, my friend Sarah, who lives in a building without one, faced a difficult decision. We had to choose how to prepare for the uncertain times ahead. Despite having a pre-scheduled direct Air Canada flight back to Montreal on Thursday, October 12, all international flights to and from Tel Aviv were suddenly cancelled, leaving El Al as the only airline operating in and out of Ben Gurion airport.
I contacted my travel agent, who suggested purchasing an El Al ticket to Zurich, allowing Air Canada to honour my ticket and continue my journey to Montreal. I decided to proceed with this option. Before my departure, I entrusted Sarah with the keys to my apartment so she could access the air raid shelter if necessary.
Returning to Montreal
Upon my arrival, I was extremely grateful to have received an invitation to join my cousins for dinner on Friday night. The following day, I attended the Shabbat morning synagogue service with Rabbi Poupko at my usual place of worship. The atmosphere during the service was familiar, except for a brief additional prayer dedicated to remembering hostages and a heartfelt rendition of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. Hatikvah, also known as the “Hope” or “Aspiration,” resonates with the two-thousand-year-old yearning of the Jewish people for sovereignty and freedom in our homeland, making it a poignant and cherished moment for all who gathered.
Reuniting with the congregation filled me 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, many of us have family and friends in Israel, and some 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, our community began a weekly tradition of gathering for an additional prayer service dedicated to reciting Psalms/Tehilim. We came together to listen to words of comfort and support from our rabbis and to recite our designated psalms as a group. Reciting Psalms, whether in a group or individually, is a cherished Jewish tradition that provides solace and strength during challenging times. This weekly act of unity and faith will continue for as long as necessary. Bacol Serlui, a prominent Israeli poet, esteemed literary critic, and dedicated educator of Hebrew literature, has also 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.” *1
Our influencers and rabbis have reminded us that we all actively participate in God’s divine mission, whether we serve in the armed forces, contribute on the home front, or engage in contemplative prayer. They encourage us to deepen our dedication to mitzvot, righteous actions, and prayer.
The Rabbis in Israel have decreed a three-day communal fast inspired by the story of Queen Esther in the Purim narrative. The tradition is a mirror of the time when Haman had secured a decree to annihilate the Jewish community in Shushan, Persia (modern-day Iran), on a specific day. On a mission to avert this catastrophe, Queen Esther implored the community to observe a three-day fast before her fateful audience with King Ahashverosh. This moving story is commemorated annually during the festival of Purim, as recounted in the Book of Esther.
On Sunday, October 15, we celebrated Rosh Chodesh, which marks the start of a new month. A few years ago, the women of Montreal started a unique tradition by hosting an exclusively female Rosh Chodesh service. Whenever I am in the city, I attend this special gathering. On this particular occasion, the service was even more extraordinary as we gathered to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of a young girl who turned 12, a significant milestone in the life of every Jewish girl. It was an inspiring and emotional experience to hear her flawlessly chant the Torah portion of the day. We celebrated this important day in her life with her classmates, friends, and family.
Resilience and Unity: How the Jewish Community Responds
The Jewish community has a long-standing tradition of solidarity and remarkable resilience in times of adversity. Throughout history, Jewish communities have consistently shown compassion for the vulnerable, including orphans, widows, and strangers in need. In Montreal, the Federation CJA oversees these noble efforts and tirelessly works to support those in need. Each year, the community unites for a fundraising campaign to gather crucial funds for these essential services. This year, we focus on raising urgent funds for the ongoing war effort initiated on the conflict’s first day.
Last week, a remarkable fundraising concert showcased some of Montreal’s beloved Jewish entertainers who generously lent their talents on very short notice. Among them, Milena Kartowski delivered an awe-inspiring rendition of “Stand by Me,” leaving a lasting impression on all attendees.
Throughout countless generations, the Jewish people have relied on our enduring traditions, unwavering commitment to Torah study, and alignment with Torah principles as a steadfast foundation. We have weathered both prosperous and challenging times by consistently practicing Judaism. This emphasis on consistent Jewish practice is crucial to our collective dedication to supporting Israel’s existential struggle for survival, including the ongoing efforts to counter threats. Whether within or outside Israel, we are united in our pursuit of the common good, striving for the recovery of our captives and the elimination of threats to ensure the safety of our people.
The Jewish community is acutely aware that the pervasive issue of antisemitism, an enduring hatred directed towards Jews, serves as a motivating force for groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. This recognition is articulated in a poignant passage from our Passover seder:
“Through the ages, not just one, but many, have risen to destroy us… But the Holy One, Blessed Be, always saves us from their hand!
She’ lo echad bilvad amad aleinu l’chaloteinu…V’ha Kadosh, Baruch Hu, matzileynu mi’yadam.”
On April 7, 2020, Ishai Ribo delivered a remarkable performance of a classic Passover song that enchanted the audience. His mesmerizing vocals brought the timeless lyrics to life and served as a powerful reminder of the numerous attempts made to harm the Jewish people throughout history. Despite these challenges, the Jewish people have always shown resilience and triumphed.
Miracles occur when we fight against evil, emphasizing our collective responsibility to confront it. As individuals and a unified community, we are consistently called upon to contribute to goodness and improve the world. This call extends to both Jewish and non-Jewish members of our society.
Only by successfully eliminating such malevolence can we hope to bring about messianic times, where peace reigns, and universal well-being, health, and happiness prevail. We pray earnestly for this day to come soon, swiftly, and in our lifetime.
Hazan Mutlu of Central Synagogue in NYC has recorded this prayer, which we all recite on behalf of our brethren facing adversity, wherever they may be—on land or at sea. We pray for the boundless mercy of God to free them from distress, leading them from darkness to light and from slavery to redemption, swiftly and soon, in our time.
“Hashta ba’agala uvizman kariv”
We stand united and fully prepared, without a doubt, that we will triumph over the evil forces threatening us!
Am Yisrael Chai: The Jewish People are alive and living, now and forever!
- Psalms for the State of Vertigo, traditiononline.org