When Rabbi Idan Irelander of Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover gave a recent talk about the Book of Genesis, he found a parallel between a biblical account of captivity and a current one.
The rabbi was discussing the Torah portion in which Joseph takes his brother Benjamin as a hostage in Egypt as part of a secret plan to reconcile with the brothers who sold him into slavery. Irelander connected this ancient narrative with the current plight of 132 Israeli hostages remaining in Gaza since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks. Of those, 28 are presumed dead.
Irelander noted that unlike many in the United States and Israel who can contact their loved ones each day, for some that is impossible. “Jacob could not do this in Egypt,” he said. “The [Israeli] hostages cannot do this. I made a connection about what it feels like.”
Rabbis on the North Shore have been seeing – and making – such connections since Oct. 7. Reflecting a diversity of denominations – including Chabad, Conservative, and Reform – they are addressing the conflict in their d’var Torahs, reflections on the weekly Torah portion. Beyond that, they are finding visual and liturgical ways to represent the plight of the hostages, and praying for them and for those slain in the attacks. Some congregations are even holding gathering spaces for people to share their concerns in a respectful environment.
At Temple Ner Tamid of the North Shore in Peabody, Rabbi Richard Perlman had long made it a practice to avoid discussing current events on the bimah. That changed after Oct. 7.
“Obviously, I started talking about the war,” he said. “I started talking about the atrocities. I immediately started to try to set the record straight – let’s call it what it is, it’s a terror attack. As all the antisemitism started to raise its ugly head, I got angry. I started to preach.”
Yet Perlman, and many of his colleagues, have done much more than address the conflict in their d’var Torahs.
“Every day, every Shabbat, we pray for the hostages,” he said. “Every day since Oct. 7. I made a statement we’ll continue [doing this] until every hostage is home … [and] the war is over. It goes well beyond just giving sermons.”
As a chaplain with the Peabody and State Police, Perlman has received critical incident stress management training, which has helped him counsel first responders dealing with on-the-job experiences. After Oct. 7, he enlisted a similarly trained chaplain, a Catholic priest, to help him share this expertise at Ner Tamid.
“The following Friday night, we said, ‘Anyone who’d like to talk this out, come on in, we’ll let you talk, we’re trained in how to do this,’” the rabbi recounted. “We had to split it in two [groups], there were that many people who attended.”
“When something like this happens,” Perlman said, referring to Oct. 7, “you need to let people talk. Now it’s on a one-to-one basis. People call me up, they need to talk over the phone, on Zoom, or in-person.”
Other synagogues also have offered processing spaces for their community. That’s true at Ahavat Olam, where a congregant who is a psychotherapist helped Irelander, and at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly.
“Sometimes the best way to approach a topic like this – and there isn’t anything like this topic – is not to be responding to each other,” said Rabbi Alison Adler of B’nai Abraham. “Not to jump on each other. Someone might have a different view.”
The rabbi thought back to her past experiences – “things I’ve done before at other parts of my life” – of people sitting together, doing some singing, and then some sharing, with time for the spaces in between.
“We would sit silently for a moment before the next person shared, giving each person a little space,” Adler recalled. “I hope it continues to work – not be arguing or jumping on each other. The ability to be together is very healing.”
The concerns are often heightened for clergy or congregants with connections to the Middle East. Irelander, who was born and raised in Israel, is friends with parents of members of the Israel Defense Forces.
“My wife and I have very good friends in Israel,” he said. “Their children are now in the war. Besides that, missiles are sent to Israel on a daily basis. We talk to our families and friends daily, make sure they are safe, alive, and well.”
Rabbi Michael Schwartz of Temple Sinai in Marblehead previously lived in the Beit Zayit moshav outside Jerusalem for 13 years. His wife is Israeli; their children were born there. Like Irelander, he has Israeli family and friends, and knows of people serving in the IDF.
“It’s very all-consuming, in many ways,” said Schwartz. His wife has a family connection to an earlier Israeli hostage narrative; her aunt’s brother was taken captive during the Lebanon War of 1982.
“We saw the impact on that family for decades,” the rabbi said. “It’s absolute torture. Here, [after Oct. 7], 100 families or more are enduring that kind of fear.”
He is also concerned about a Palestinian family he got to know in the U.S.
“We have friends who grew up in Gaza,” the rabbi said. “Their families are still there. I wrote them an email,” empathizing with “what must be devastating and incredible fear, loss, anger, and concern for their families in Gaza. Just trying to imagine the level of suffering going on for them is … words can’t describe it, right?”
Asked how he himself is doing, Schwartz replied, “It’s hard. What mostly keeps me going is the wonderful sense of unity, Am Yisrael Chai,” contrasting this with the “tremendous disunity” during the judicial overhaul protests in Israel before Oct. 7. “Trying to focus on the bright side of things is not a complete counterweight to the horror, the loss – but commiserating with other Israelis, other Jews, focusing on the positive points I just mentioned keeps us going.” Θ