FOX POINT – The room was somber, the speakers’ voices filled with anguish, after inconceivable attacks on civilians, at a festival, in their homes, against people of all ages.
A variety of Jewish organizations came together Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, to hold a “Community Solidarity Gathering for Israel.” The evening event was held after the weekend when Hamas initiated war with Israel by killing and kidnapping hundreds. Milwaukee Jewish Federation organized the event, with numerous co-sponsors, at Congregation Shalom, Fox Point.
The synagogue was filled with about 1,000 people, at capacity, with another 1,900 livestream views online. Attendees were encouraged to give to the Israel Trauma Relief Fund, to support victims of terror. You can get to the fund by texting ISRAEL to 51555, or visit MilwaukeeJewish.org/Israel-at-war.
Before the start of speeches and singing, people of Jewish Milwaukee found seats and ran into old friends, without the usual good feelings. There would be a subdued nod, a hug, or the trading of eye-glistened looks.
Noa Gerassi, Milwaukee community shlicha, stood on stage with other visiting Israelis behind her. Gerassi told the room: “You asked the questions, extended your support and we came to understand that the Jewish community in Milwaukee is closely attuned to and deeply affected by the ongoing tragic events unfolding in Israel.”
There were tears and hugs on stage, a struggle to say the unsayable. Shin shin Eitan Mizrahi, 18, is an Israeli set to spend a year in Milwaukee as part of a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Jewish Agency for Israel. He talked, haltingly, about how his best friends’ brother had not been seen since the attacks. Shin shin Tom Ram, also a recent Israeli high school graduate, said: “Yesterday my dad called me and said that all of my uncles and my cousin are going back to the army for reserve duty.”
“One of them … is going to the south of Israel, really close to Gaza. I have no words to explain what I’m feeling right now.”
Israeli Heni Bizawi, a campus Israel fellow serving Hillel Milwaukee, talked of her cousin’s good friend, Daniel Asher Cohen, a DJ. “He was playing music at a party near Gaza when the rockets were fired,” she said, adding that it’s not known where he is now. “It is not known if he is dead or alive or was kidnapped.”
“I wrote this today at 3:30 this afternoon but then at 4:15 I got a message from my cousin saying that one of the bodies found in the field is Daniel’s and now his family confirmed that he is dead.”
Gerassi said that coming together as a community, sharing thoughts and prayers, does provide some comfort. Mark Shapiro, CEO of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, added that in addition to the deep sadness, we can feel together.
Videos shown during the event included messages from Israelis who have spent time working or volunteering in Milwaukee, as part of programs that connect Israel with Wisconsin.
Rabbi Nir Barkin, who previously served as a shaliach, or cultural emissary, in Milwaukee, has said in the past that he became a rabbi after he was inspired by his time in Milwaukee. Barkin now leads an Israeli synagogue. “My community have come together like yours and I can assure you that any support that is so much needed at this time will go to build a beautiful Israel,” he said in his video.
Cantors from different local synagogues sang haunting and traditional melodies.
“We stand together not just to mourn the loss but also to extend our support and prayers to the people of Israel,” said Joan Lubar, chair of the board for Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “The strength of our community is when we are one. We proudly declare that we stand in solidarity with the people of Israel.”
Some from outside the Jewish community came to the event, after Hamas terrorists broadcast horrific acts to the world. Rabbi Noah Chertkoff, of Congregation Shalom, expressed support for Israel, and acknowledged the sorrow. He also expressed thanks to allies in the room: “We see you. We are comforted by you and your presence touches our wounded hearts.”
“I stand here with Israel,” said Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, from the podium. Rabbi Jessica Barolsky, of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, led a prayer for the soldiers. Rabbi David Cohen, of Congregation Sinai, decried the “shameful orgy of violence,” and prayed. Rabbi Steve Adams, president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, called for hope, for those held as captives, and led a prayer.
“At a minimum God’s divine dignity, God’s good name, is diminished; the earthly beauty and human kindness that should sing of God’s benevolent love instead feels trashed, desecrated, by the invasion and the massacre,” said Rabbi Joel Alter of Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid.
“We’re going to be there for the people of Israel as we have been always,” said Miryam Rosenzweig, president and CEO of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “We were there in 1948; we were there in 1952; we were there in 1967; we were there in 1973. We were there in first Lebanon war, in second Lebanon war. We were there for the intifada and we’re going to be there today and we’re going to be there tomorrow we’re going to be there again and again and again because we are one people.”
Rosenzweig gave attendees three minutes of silence to give to the Israel Relief Fund, to support terror victims. By the close of the event, $75,000 was raised, that number continuing to grow afterwards.
Rabbi Wes Kalmar noted in his closing benediction, the great pain felt by the Jewish people, but called for strength in the face of an attack on humanity.