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The war is here, personal

The Israel-Hamas War is being fought 7,000 miles away. But within the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish community, the war is touching families directly. Everyone "must thrust himself … into this struggle."

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The world said: “Never again.”

Then, after the news started coming from Israel a day after the Oct. 7 massacres, emotions raced like adrenaline through your veins — shock, horror, fear, anguish, anger, sadness, an emptiness and tightening in the stomach. 

Is this it — again?

The night before, in temples and synagogues throughout Sarasota and Manatee — throughout the world — Jews were celebrating Sukkot, one of their most joyous festivals. “There was a lot of dancing,” remembers Joel Auerbach, president of Temple Beth El in Bradenton.

Sukkot is a time of celebrating, dancing and happiness, commemorating the fall harvest and God’s protection of the Jews during their flight from slavery in Egypt. 

But as details of the Oct. 7 massacres filtered around the world, Auerbach remembers how his congregants’ joy quickly turned somber and solemn by Saturday night.

“It was the most horrific day of our lives,” remembers Rabbi Brenner Glickman of Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota. 

For a month now, the 24/7 news diet on the Israel-Hamas War has had us all on edge. And it’s wearing on our psyche as we watch and wonder: What’s next? How bad is it going to get? 

And though that war is on the other side of the world, 7,000 miles away, even here, in this idyllic slice of Florida, this war is in our neighborhoods, among our co-workers, among so many families. 

It is deeply personal. 

And for many, it is excruciatingly painful — no matter on which side your ancestors and family members lie.

Look around you. Six degrees of separation? No, try one, two, three. It is real.

On Sunday, Oct. 8, when Dr. Liot Alon, a native Israeli and chief learning and engagement officer at the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, was driving to a rally for Israel at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, she received a text from her ex-husband in Israel. The terrorists had killed the son of a close, former colleague of Alon. In his early 30s, he was trying to protect his kibbutz at Kfar Aza on the border with Gaza. He had three children.

Alon pulled over. “I thought I was going to throw up,” she said.

In the days after the attacks, Alon counted 17 funerals she would have attended — all of friends’ family members whom the terrorists murdered: A brother and nephew of a friend murdered on the beach where they were surfing; another colleague and her two young children, the woman’s 14-year-old son the only survivor.

“It goes on and on,” Alon said.

Two days after the massacres in Israel, Mark Gordon, managing editor of our Business Observer, based in our Observer Media Group office in Sarasota, informed us his niece — the daughter of Gordon’s sister — was in Tel Aviv when the attacks occurred.

She had arrived five days earlier as a Fulbright scholar, set to teach English at a university. She was staying with her father’s cousin, who lives in Tel Aviv. That cousin and five of his siblings were called up for duty with the Israel Defense Force.

For seven days, the family of Gordon’s niece scrambled frantically, working the State Department channels to try to get her on a plane to the U.S. She made it — flying home via the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Al Treidel, 77, is president of Temple Beth Shalom on South Tuttle Avenue. For him, the war not only touched his congregants, it is familial. “One congregant lost three relatives,” he told us. “Another’s stepson was kidnapped. Another’s cousin was kidnapped and escaped. I have 30 relatives and friends there.

“My family has lived in Israel since the early 1900s,” he told us. “A family home near the Sea of Galilee is a national monument. Most of my family was murdered in the Holocaust. My grandfather hid from the Nazis in a pogrom; he and others lived on a half-cup of water a day. This is just so reminiscent of what happened in the Second World War.”

Throughout the Sarasota and Manatee synagogues, rabbis and temple leaders unanimously described their congregants in the two weeks after the massacres as fearful, nervous, sad, anguished and angry.

“They’re terribly shaken by it,” Glickman said of his congregants at Temple Emanu-El. “The dread of knowing what’s coming.”

Said Isaac Azerad, executive director of Temple Beth Israel on Longboat Key: “This is very scary to the elderly Jewish population because their parents were part of the Holocaust.”

Heightened security

To be expected, the region’s temples and other Jewish organizations all have increased security in the wake of Oct. 7. They had increased security in 2020 after a vandal defaced two temples with swastikas and hate-filled graffiti. Now this has compelled them to bring on more armed guards on their campuses.

A Sarasota family that declined to be identified out of fear, fretted since the Oct. 7 attacks about the safety of a family bat mitzvah that occurred this past Saturday. The family hired two off-duty sheriff’s deputies for the temple and two off-duty police officers for the celebration. 

So far, though, none of the temple officials has reported any sordid incidents. But they’re ready. 

Tom Baugher, director of the Sarasota-Manatee region for the Secure Community Network, a national security organization for all Jewish organizations in the U.S., says the region’s synagogues constantly live with heightened awareness and preach to their congregants “situational awareness.”

On top of that, Baugher notes: “We really have outstanding law enforcement in this area. They are dialed in.”

Said Azerad of Temple Beth Israel on Longboat Key: “We’re eternally grateful to the Longboat Key police.” Voluntarily, the town’s police department has stationed a patrol car and officer near the temple at the times of its services. 

At Temple Emanu-El, security personnel are on campus almost around the clock seven days a week, costing the temple $150,000 a year. “It’s an enormous bill,” Glickman said. But necessary.

Brian Lipton, regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Sarasota, the international non-profit human rights organization, said he had AJC’s name removed from his office building’s first-floor directory as a precaution, and he has booked additional security personnel to augment the usual number of security officers for an upcoming dinner.

Christians reach out

While rabbis and temple officials say many of their congregants were in shock after the massacres, instead of their staying away from temple services out of fear, the war has had a counter-effect on attendance. It has mushroomed. 

A weekly lunch at Temple Emanu-El often attracted about 75 congregants. On the “Day of Rage,” the first Friday after the massacres, attendance rose to 115. 

“People are coming in very large numbers,” Glickman said. “Everyone wants to be with other Jews now. They are carrying deep pain, and that can be dealt with by being with other people who are feeling similar pain.”

“There’s a Jewish saying,” said Auerbach. “From generation to generation. Jewish people know they must stick together.”

To that end, in the week after the attacks, congregants at Temple Emanu-El mobilized. Rabbi Elaine Rose Glickman told her husband, Rabbi Glickman, the temple needed to marshal “a comprehensive response.”

She became the guiding force behind 16 projects underway simultaneously, each with 50 to 180 congregants in groups. They’re writing letters to IDF soldiers and the families whose loved ones were murdered. Ten congregants a week are making donations to different Jewish groups here and in Israel in need of funds. An advocacy group is writing letters to the U.S. Department of Education to address the anti-Semitism on college campuses. Another group is focused on counseling families, teens and younger children, all to help with fears, grief and explanations for what is occurring.   

Support has also come from non-Jews. “My next door neighbor, who isn’t Jewish, knocked on my door to see how we’re doing,” said Treidel.

Unsolicited, Christian clergy attended the Sabbath services Oct. 13 at Temple Emanu-El, then Temple Beth Israel on Oct. 27 and Temple Kol HaNeshama Nov. 3.

Temple Beth Shalom’s Altshuler called the support of the area’s Christian clergy gratifying. “We know we have a lot of friends,” he said, adding, however, “I wish we had calls from Muslim leaders.”

Said the Rev. Tom Pfaff, president of the Sarasota Ministerial Association and participant in the visits to the temples: “The war —  just like hurricanes unite Florida neighbors — has united us in a more than collaborative way, the ways of trust and friendship.”

The Saturday after the attacks, representatives of Temple Beth El in Bradenton set out an 8 1/2 x 11 paper sign on the temple’s table at the weekly farmer’s market in Lakewood Ranch. It asked for contributions to help Israelis. Auerbach said people gave $200. The fund is now more than $3,500.

“We’ve been absolutely overwhelmed from the support of the community — Jewish and non-Jewish,” said Ellen Biddle, director of marketing and communications at the Jewish Federation.

Humankind woven together

All of this — how the Oct. 7 massacres are intensely personal to our Jewish brethren in Greater Sarasota and Manatee; how the attacks triggered memories and fears of another Holocaust; and how the region’s Jews and non-Jews came together to support one another — is a tapestry of how horrific tragedies weave humankind together, no matter if they are near or far.

The world, and this community as well, did not respond to Russia’s invasion and murdering of Ukrainians as it has to the massacres in Israel. Nor has America’s silent majority recoiled to Israel’s bombing and incursions into Gaza with the same shock and horror that swept across us after learning of Hamas terrorists’ barbaric atrocities. 

There is a difference. 

For one, the Holocaust. The degree of separation between those living in this community today whose families still bear the scars and intimate memories of that horror — Jews and non-Jews alike — is one and two; not six. 

As Rabbi Glickman told us: “The dread of not knowing” — will this be it … the end of Israel? — is real. It’s not 7,000 miles away. For weeks now, what is occurring in Israel has been reverberating monumentally here. 

Even in peaceful Sarasota, we cannot and should not ignore it.

Regular readers of this space know how we often refer to the wisdom of the late, great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. He was much more than a scholar of economics. As someone who personally lived and observed the rise Nazism from his home in Vienna in the 1930s, Mises became an astute observer and philosopher of human action. He wrote an 885-page book with that title. And one of the conclusions he reached is apropos for this moment in time:  

“Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders; no one is relieved of his share of responsibilities by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping toward destruction. Therefore, everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the great historical struggle into which our epoch has plunged us.”

We stand against evil. For historical, biblical and moral reasons and for humanity, We Stand with Israel.

“Never again.”



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.