Across the US, Simchat Torah festivities are muted by anxiety about Israel at war


((JEWISH REVIEW)) — For the last dozen years, an array of synagogues from multiple denominations have gathered together in a central location in Brooklyn to sing and dance with the Torah, the centerpiece of Simchat Torah celebrations.

But in advance of the holiday’s onset Saturday night, the organizers of Simchat Torah Across Brooklyn announced that the day’s unprecedented violence in Israel had caused a change of plans.

“Tonight will be different,” the organizers wrote on the event’s Facebook page on Saturday afternoon. “In response to the horrific war on Israel today, our joy will become a vigil and our prayers will turn to solidarity with our Israeli family. We will demonstrate the unity of the Jewish people and that Americans and American Jews stand with Israel.”

It was a transformation that unfolded again and again across the United States as Simchat Torah, celebrated as one of the most joyous days of the Jewish calendar, began under the shadow of catastrophe.

Hamas sent thousands of rockets into the country while also invading by land, killing 300 people, wounding more than 1,500 and taking hostages in one of the grimmest days in Israeli history. Questions about how the country could have been so surprised simmered beneath a mounting death toll, ongoing fighting and hours-long hostage situations, and declarations by Israel’s leadership that Saturday’s bloodshed marked the beginning of a long and painful war.

In Israel, the holiday ended on Saturday night, though it was interrupted across the country by gunfire, sirens and call-ups of military reservists. In the United States, where the holiday is celebrated over two days — with the dancing held on the second — rabbis anguished over how and whether to celebrate in the face of the ongoing tragedy.

“I apologize for posting on Shabbat/Chag,” a rabbi wrote in a private Facebook group for Jewish clergy on Saturday, using the Hebrew word for holiday and requesting advice. “I’m struggling to find balance between observing Simchat Torah and respecting the tragedy that is happening.”

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky sent his congregants at Congregation Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue, a rare message on Saturday afternoon saying that he had decided to scale back the night’s festivities.

“You know I would not typically send out a message on Shabbat and Hag,” he wrote. “But given the terrible events today in Israel — with hundreds dead, thousands wounded, and some, as yet unknown, number held hostage in Gaza — I feel it is impossible to celebrate Simchat Torah as usual.”

Ansche Chesed held a children’s event as scheduled but did not call for dancing. Dozens of adults then gathered for a prayer service and to read the end and the beginning of the Torah, but without the festive cheer that typically accompanies the reading. Instead, Kalmanofsky shared reflections from congregants about their fear and concern for those they knew in Israel.

At Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, Rabbi Michael Siegel discussed the day’s violence before moving into the holiday service.

“Today is Israel’s 9/11. All of us know people in Israel. All of us have spent the day thinking and praying for them. All of us. And it’s Simchat Torah,” he said. “How do you bridge that? How do we find our way from tears to joy? How is that even possible?”

Siegel said he had spoken to a congregant whose relative in Israel had urged her to attend the holiday service because so many Israelis could not. He led the Conservative congregation in a traditional prayer for peace, which Siegel noted includes wishes for all of Israel and Jerusalem to lie under a canopy of peace.

“How those words speak to us tonight,” he said. “Hundreds, thousands of Israelis, thousands of our brothers and sisters are not sleeping tonight. We stand with them.”

At IKAR in Los Angeles, Rabbi Sharon Brous cautioned that the evening would not be the dance party that usually takes place on the holiday.

“Anybody who has celebrated Simchat Torah at IKAR before knows that this is a night of incredibly overflowing joy,” she said. “Very obviously tonight, given everything that’s happened in Israel today, it’s very hard if not impossible to experience that kind of joy.”

Brous announced a modified, subdued version of the typical Torah-dancing but said the congregation would neither “overcome our impulse to cry and instead bring the dance out” nor “sit on the floor and weep all night and not experience any of the joy. Because we know that part of the great challenge of being alive and being human in the world is to actually experience both.”

Earlier on Saturday, congregations recited the Yizkor prayer, a service held four times a year in memory of loved ones who have died. Faced with the attack on Israel, synagogues turned to that and other age-old Jewish responses to tragedy and death. Some recited psalms beseeching God for help, and prayers on behalf of Jewish captives. Some also added communal singing of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. In at least one synagogue in Washington, D.C. the dancing proceeded but all the songs were about Israel or a hope for peace.

And some rabbis innovated new rituals for a situation without precedent. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires, a Reform synagogue, wrote a prayer on Saturday morning that her congregation recited at Yizkor and again before Simchat Torah festivities.

“The words are simple, maybe facile. But they are the most genuine prayer of my heart,” Barenblat wrote on Facebook.

The prayer expressed solidarity with the people of Israel and hoped for peace with the Palestinians. It concluded: “God, with all the desperation of our hearts we plead: may it be true that peace will yet come.”