6 months into Israel’s war, American rabbis are grappling with anxiety over the battle’s aims and mounting toll


((JEWISH REVIEW)) — Every Friday night, Rabbi Marc Katz’s synagogue recites a prayer for Israel that, since Oct. 7, has expressed hope for the release of the hostages held by Hamas, mentioned the Israeli government and asked God for dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Katz, the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey, also makes his own daily prayer: for the war to come to an end.

“I pray every day that Israel finds its way out of this war,” Katz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The Israeli strike that killed seven aid workers last week, he said, has only intensified that desire.

“This is just one more piece of evidence for why I need to pray even harder for this to be the case,” he said. “As horrible as this was, this doesn’t change anything for me. It just underscores how horrible war actually is.”

But he added a caveat: “It doesn’t mean that the war becomes more unjust because those seven people died.”

And when Katz discusses the war, he tells his Reform congregation to find a place in the “messy middle, which is this idea that you can hold a lot of things at once, and you can feel for the Palestinian people, you can feel for the Israeli people. Compassion is not a zero-sum game.”

The dilemmas Katz faces are the same ones that rabbis across the United States and beyond are confronting as their communities mark six months’ passage since Oct. 7. In the time immediately after the Hamas attack that day, as Jews worldwide mourned the 1,200 people killed, most civilians, and began to cope with the reality of some 250 hostages held in Gaza, they mobilized for rallies, prayers and donation drives around the world.

Now, six months later, Hamas is heavily damaged but remains in charge of parts of Gaza, and more than 130 Israelis remain in captivity. Meanwhile, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians, and the Gaza Strip faces an acute humanitarian crisis that global health officials say is leading to famine. The Israeli strike that killed the seven World Central Kitchen workers — after which Israel apologized, fired officers and changed its policies — has exacerbated international anger at Israel.

For many American rabbis, the World Central Kitchen killings have fueled a crisis in confidence. They told (JEWISH REVIEW) that they, and their congregants, are grappling with another reality half a year later: a war ongoing, the Jewish state isolated and mounting Palestinian suffering — in addition to antisemitism closer to home.

Some who eschewed calls for a ceasefire in the past have recently made their own, while others have remained staunchly in Israel’s corner — believing, as most Israeli Jews do, that the war must go on despite the cost. (Israel announced on Sunday that it was withdrawing most troops from Gaza but would continue the war with targeted raids and strikes.) Hundreds have donated nearly $60,000 to a fundraiser for World Central Kitchen initiated by U.S. rabbis. All are trying to shepherd their congregations or students through a situation with no easy answers.

“A lot of people, Jews in my community who were very concerned about Israel’s right to defend itself until now, really have felt like Israel crossed a line,” said Elliot Kukla, a grief counselor and teacher at Svara, a Chicago-based yeshiva that serves queer Jews.

“People that we serve [are] beginning to question and say: Wait a minute, what’s going on? And I feel like I have that conversation, on a regular basis — of American Jews asking questions they’ve never really asked before.”

Kukla is part of a group called Rabbis for Ceasefire that was founded just weeks after Oct. 7 by a former leader of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, at a time when such calls were found mostly on the pro-Palestinian left. In the months since then, calls for a ceasefire have become increasingly widespread, including among rabbis. The rabbinic human rights group T’ruah was one of a coalition of liberal Zionist groups to call for a bilateral ceasefire and release of hostages a month ago.

“I believe we must hold many truths at the same time right now, and that is very hard,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of the Reform Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, who endorsed the T’ruah stance. “My arms are tired of holding so much. I fear for my beloved Israel on so many levels – a big one being that the world is turning farther away from Israel every day.”

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of the Conservative Ansche Chesed synagogue in New York City said he also supports a negotiated ceasefire, though he added, “I in general refrain from trying to use synagogue as a time for op-eds.” (Kalmanofsky made news last year when he replaced the traditional prayer for the State of Israel during his congregation’s services as a form of protest against Israel’s right-wing government.) He said he has been surprised by the length of the war.

“I certainly never could have imagined six months,” Kalmanofsky said. “I am passionately, emotionally, ethnically, religiously on the side of Israel and I try every day not to let that diminish my connection to the people of Gaza who are suffering unimaginably.”

Calls for ceasefire are far from universal. Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who leads the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition and is the rabbi of the Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, was on a mission to Israel with 20 of his congregants, where they heard from Israelis who exhorted them to fight the “fake news” smearing Israel’s conduct in the war, when the World Central Kitchen strikes took place.

Weinblatt praised Israel’s changes in response to having killed the aid workers and said he and his congregants back its war aims. “Israel needs to continue its job until it defeats Hamas,” he said.

“I have a congregation that is sophisticated and knowledgeable enough to know that this attack [on World Central Kitchen’s convoy], unfortunate as it is, is an aberration and not indicative of normal procedures,” he said. “They’re concerned that people come away with the wrong impression about Israel, but they understand that this is not who Israel is. and as a result remain committed to being supportive of Israel.”

Angst over the duration and humanitarian cost of Israel’s war appears less pronounced among Orthodox communities, including their rabbis, which tend to be more politically conservative, skew to the right of non-Orthodox communities on Israel issues and generally support the war effort. Some Orthodox rabbis have spoken out in recent days to express distress over the pressure that Israel is facing from the United States.

Efrem Goldberg, senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida, wrote on Facebook that he believed the Biden administration was wrong to demand changes from Israel following the World Central Kitchen killings.

“If you or your loved one were held hostage, wouldn’t you want and expect your President to make ultimatums to those torturing you, not those fighting for your release?!” he wrote.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who leads Kehillat Etz Chayim of Detroit and also works at the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor, also wrote on Facebook that he was distressed by the Biden administration’s declining patience with Israel’s war effort. He also said he remained confident not only in the virtue of the war but in how Israel is fighting it.

“As we sadly know from the recent tragic death of seven humanitarian aid workers (and the preliminary Israeli investigation), not every soldier is perfect,” Lopatin wrote on Facebook. “Yet I deeply believe, with all the evidence, that the IDF is the most moral army in the world.”

The idea that the war is causing Israel to become a pariah state — or perhaps has already made it so — has troubled rabbis across denominations and ideologies. Rabbi Barat Ellman, a professor of religion at Fordham University and advocate for a ceasefire, said such a reality is “​​very scary for Israelis and it’s very scary for Jews.”

Katz believes global antagonism toward Israel made that scenario inevitable.

“Israel already is a pariah state. I’m not sure that this is going to change things. It’s been horrible to watch as Israel has lost world opinion,” he said. “I knew that this was going to happen the minute that Oct. 7 happened. And this [the strike on aid workers] sped things up a little bit, but it was going to get there no matter what, unfortunately.”

Kalmanofsky said he hasn’t yet given up on the war. “Israel has to pursue its war aims with urgency and it should pursue its humanitarian aims with comparable urgency,” he said. And like the vast majority of American synagogues, his congregation recites a prayer for Israel. But he adds something of his own as well.

“I never let a week pass without also mentioning the suffering of the Palestinians,” he said. “We don’t recite a formal tefillah [prayer], but I never let a Saturday pass without also raising that.”