Rocket attacks from Gaza into Southern Israel this week further stoked the fears of area religious leaders, who are already preoccupied with the unrelenting threat of Iran’s nuclear program. They say the persistent attacks over a four-day period beginning last weekend could make an already tenuous political situation more precarious.
“I think it’s a time of great anxiety, not just because of Iran, but because of what’s going on in southern Israel and the lack of real movement in the peace process,” says Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, of Netivot Shalom, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck. “Because the Iranian rhetoric is so over the top, and because of what is happening in Israel, Syria, and Egypt, it just adds to that sense of great angst I think we all feel,” he said. “Israel is strong, but now faces uncertainty and change in the Islamist world.”
Approximately 300 rockets were launched at major cities in the southern part of Israel before an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took hold on Tuesday. Israel’s deployment of the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system intercepted 56 rockets, or a little over the 70 percent of the rockets targeted by the system (Iron Dome does not target rockets its programming estimates will fall in open fields). Two rockets struck near Hedera, 17 miles from Tel-Aviv. Another hit the port city of Ashdod, shattering storefronts and damaging cars and buildings.
Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) are the groups responsible for the missile barrage. The groups, which are competing with Hamas for supremacy in Gaza, have ties to both Iran and Syria, Israeli officials say.
The potential threat posed by a nuclear Iran continues to loom large here, however.
“The Iran issue is up in front; that’s a sign of immediacy, danger, and urgency,” said Rabbi Kenneth Emert, of Temple Beth Rishon, an unaffiliated liberal synagogue in Wyckoff. “It’s important to understand that none of us are military people, politicians, statisticians, or prophets. But I think an indicator that that situation is more precarious and dangerous is that discussion surrounding a Palestinian state has been relegated to the bottom of the agenda with President Obama and Israeli leaders.”
Admittedly, the scenario is a complicated one, says Rabbi Fred Elias, of Kol HaNeshama, a Conservative synagogue in Englewood.
“What Israel decides to do affects what Iran does, what Israel’s neighbors do, and ultimately provokes us and the rest of the world to react or not react,” he said. “If Israel does nothing, it continues to face ongoing, documented threats; if it does something, it will likely provoke condemnation and an escalation of attacks by Hezbollah, Hamas, and perhaps its neighbors who foster more terrorism.”
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, of Ahavath Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Englewood, fears the rest of the world may fail to recognize the Iranian threat as a global one. “I don’t think the world is saying, ‘let’s sacrifice Israel,'” said Goldin, who also is president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “But I do think countries are willing to draw their [red] lines in a different place, and that means they feel a degree of pacification or appeasement can last longer than I believe Israel can afford.”
Rabbi Neal Borovitz, of the Reform synagogue Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, and chairman of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), believes now, more than ever, American Jews must unite in their support of Israel, the United States, and each other.
“I take comfort in the sense that everyone seems to understand that Iran represents an existential threat to the survival of Israel and the western economic system,” he said. “One of the things American Jews should not be doing is making the Iran nuclear threat a partisan issue. We have to be very cautious during this political season not to allow people from either party to pull us apart.”
Rabbi Akiva Block, of Kehilat Kesher, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on the Englewood-Tenafly border, agrees. “As American Jews, we’re often pulled in different directions as to our allegiances,” he said. “We speak as Americans at the same time we seek to accomplish the same goals Israelis are trying to accomplish.”
Many contend that neither Israel nor the United States has faced an adversary quite as powerful as Iran. “We’re as close as we’ve ever been to facing something we can’t cope with,” Block said. “It feels as though Israel finds itself at its most precarious time in history.”
That is why American Jews must continue to travel to Israel, says Rabbi Jordan Millstein, of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Tenafly. It is not enough, he says, to engage in public discussions and advocacy on Israel’s behalf, but not go there.
“One of my fears is that American Jews will become fearful and stop traveling to Israel, but that could really harm the country,” he said. “Tourism is one way we can help Israel, and it also helps us build our own Jewish identity.
“We show our support for Israel during difficult times by continuing to go there; when we show up in times of trouble, it is so meaningful to the country and our people.”
Rabbi Millstein recalled the expressions of gratitude when he traveled to Israel in 2006, at a time of missile barrages both from Gaza in the south and Lebanon in the north. “We need to think of ourselves not just as tourists, but as brothers and sisters,” he said. “And not be afraid.”