Rabbi Daniel Burg was among hundreds of Jewish Marylanders who gathered Tuesday night in Baltimore County for a vigil to remember the victims of a terrorist attack in Israel that left more than 1,000 people dead.
The service, organized by multiple Jewish congregations in Baltimore, was held at Beth Tfiloh in Pikesville.
Hamas militants launched an unexpected and deadly attack on sites in southern Israel over the weekend, citing worsening conditions for Palestinians in the Israel-occupied Gaza Strip. The militants killed civilians, including women and children, and took some 150 hostages, according to news reports. President Joe Biden said 14 Americans were among the dead and that 20 or more were missing. The president condemned the Hamas attack as “sheer evil.”
Israel has declared war on Hamas, launching intense airstrikes on the Gaza Strip that have killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including women and children.
Burg said the service was intended to allow the community to gather strength from one another.
“It’s incredibly difficult to be so far away,” said Burg, senior rabbi at Beth Am Synagogue. “And yet, I feel blessed for my personal safety and my family’s safety and that I don’t need to send my children off to war at this moment, as so many of our brethren need to do in the state of Israel, right now.”
The Jewish faith will survive this tragedy, leaders say. Executive director Daniel Silien of Beth Tfiloh said that even with various denominations in Judaism, there was an urgent need to have a safe space to comfort each other and show solidarity for what’s happening in Israel.
“The vast majority of people in this room either have a relative who currently lives in Israel or has someone close to them who lives in Israel. You have the seven degrees of separation that people often talk about, and between the Jewish community in Baltimore, and the people in Israel, it really is a one, maximum two, degree separation,” Silien said.
For several horrible hours on Saturday, Baltimore County resident Neil Rubin’s family could not reach anyone who knew whether his nephew, a soldier in an Israeli combat unit on the Gaza border, was all right.
Soon after the attacks, Rubin later learned, the 21-year-old soldier was medically evacuated due to injuries caused by shrapnel. A number of his nephew’s friends and fellow soldiers were reportedly killed.
Even as a history teacher at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville and a close follower of the news, Rubin said he has felt ill reading about the conflict and its atrocities. What else can Jewish Americans with ties to the embattled region do, he said, except support, educate and pray?
“So, I’m educating,” Rubin said. “This is a moment for education.”
In a matter of days, the escalating conflict has reportedly caught hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian civilians in the crossfire — stoking anxiety among Marylanders with ties to the region. Local advocates say they’re raising money, boosting security and appealing to elected leaders to support their friends and family overseas. The war is rooted in a deeply complex history, placing some local Jewish and Muslim advocates on squarely opposing sides of the conflict.
Rubin teaches a 10th grade current events course and has recently taken over a 12th grade history class on contemporary Israel for an Israeli colleague who was called back home for military service. He’s telling his students, many of whom have family and friends in Israel, to delete TikTok and Instagram apps so they won’t accidentally stumble on graphic footage of the carnage.
Some want to know how Hamas militants were able to penetrate regions under Israeli military protection. Others wonder “why doesn’t Israel flatten Gaza?” he said. The longtime educator and former journalist spells out what that would mean for a region where more than 2 million people, roughly half of whom UNICEF estimates are children, call home.
“We teach the Palestinian narrative as well as the Israeli one,” Rubin said. “We also teach there are multiple Palestinian and Jewish narratives. We’re trying to maintain for students the humanism aspect.”
Maryland’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, says this week it’s mourning the loss of innocent life and condemned what it calls Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine as well as its “brutal” siege of Gaza.
Zainab Chaudry, director of the CAIR office in Maryland, said in a statement that the siege over Gaza will lead to death, displacement, persecution and the dehumanization of millions of Palestinians.
“This conflict stems from decades of oppression targeting people fighting for their basic rights to freedom and self-determination,” Chaudry said. “Conversations about the escalation of violence in the region are incomplete without this critical context. There cannot be peace in the absence of justice.”
Military action, Chaudry said, would not bring about a solution to the crisis. She compared Palestinians’ position to that of Ukrainians and called for the U.S. government to cease sending military aid to Israel.
Meanwhile, The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore has launched an emergency fundraising campaign to support aid and allies in Israel, including partners in Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city.
“People are horrified and stunned by what happened,” said Howard Libit, the executive director for the Baltimore Jewish Council. "I don’t think any of us could have imagined a scenario like this. There are so many members of our community with friends and family living in Israel and they’re worried.”
Those worries extend to the Jewish community in Maryland as well, Libit said.
Past conflicts abroad have sometimes coincided with anti-Semitic acts in the United States. Libit said Baltimore City, Baltimore County and state police have been in contact in recent days. And security has been stepped up at local schools, synagogues and Jewish community centers.
Meanwhile, others worry about loved ones who might get caught in the conflict.
Elite Jakob, who has lived in the Baltimore area for 34 years, said her youngest daughter had been spending time in Israel between finishing her studies at Tulane University and starting nursing school. She was with Jakob’s mother in the city of Raanana when the war broke out Saturday.
“My husband and I hadn’t been sleeping since we first got a phone call from her. She started hearing the sirens and thought it was a terrorist,” Jakob said.
Ever since, Jakob said, she and her husband have felt uneasy and speechless, while simultaneously longing for the safety of their loved ones.
“She [Jakob’s daughter] got a ticket to go to France. She’s actually landing in Marseille in 30 minutes,” Jakob said Tuesday evening. She added that her 81-year-old mother is such a “strong” woman.
“It’s very hard to explain what she’s going through because she’s been through all the wars, attack operations and all kinds of like crazy stuff in Israel. But this is something else. She’s in such disbelief, but I think part of her knows we’ll be okay,” Jakob said.
To Rubin, the outbreak of war marks an important moment in history.
“Just like the 9/11 [terror attacks] shaped the world, this is going to shape the Jewish part of who we are,” Rubin said. “Our kids need to feel safe and to feel what it’s like to be in a community.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.