In public plazas across the world, Shabbat tables are being set for 200-plus men, women, and children, their names and faces prominently displayed on each chair.
None of the honored guests will be sitting down to eat, because they are still held hostage by Hamas in Gaza.
The “empty Shabbat table” concept is a visually stark and poignant way to raise awareness for the captives and to show solidarity with them and with Israel at one of the most difficult times in the history of the Jewish state.
Thousands of people in Times Square viewed an empty Shabbat table set for 224 people across Duffy Square on October 26. It was installed by the Israeli-American Council and other Jewish organizations.
The next afternoon, an empty Shabbat table filled the parking lot adjacent to Café Angelique in Tenafly. Police estimate that some 2,000 people came to see the tableau, read the posters describing individual hostages affixed to each chair, light Shabbat candles, and hear speeches delivered between 4:45 and 5:35 p.m. The next day, many more came between 7:30 a.m. and noon to take in the sight.
A grassroots effort spearheaded by Daphna Arad of Englewood Cliffs and Orly Chen of Tenafly, the empty Shabbat table was publicized by the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, Lubavitch on the Palisades, and other communal organizations and synagogues.
“We will join together this Friday as the sun begins to set, united as one community, to witness the impact of so many empty chairs, each representing infants, children, women, and men of all ages, as we hope for their safe return and attempt to exert global pressure on authorities to bring about the immediate and swift release of the hostages,” Ms. Arad wrote before the event.
For the first 30 years of her life, Ms. Arad lived in Israel, and though she’s been in America for nearly 40 years, she said the war affects her deeply. “I have grandchildren serving in the Israel Defense Forces,” she said.
Ms. Arad saw a TV news report about the empty Shabbat table set up last week outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and decided to do something similar locally.
“I contacted my dear friend Orly, a community activist in Tenafly, and we worked together,” she said. “It was really a community event. We contacted friends, and everyone not only said yes but also asked, ‘What else can I do?’
“A friend in Englewood donated a rose for every place setting. A company owned by Israelis donated a platform and podium, another donated and assembled the audio equipment. We got donations of challah and grape juice from three stores owned by Israeli and Jewish Americans in Tenafly and Englewood. Others donated candles, bottles of wine, and everything else needed,” she said, adding that none of the donors wished to be identified publicly.
“Everyone contributed,” she added. “It was an event from everyone’s hearts.”
The organizers rented chairs for the adult hostages. They also rented highchairs with donated baby bottles on their trays and teddy bears in their seats, “to show there were babies and little kids taken hostage. We tried to make as much impact as possible.”
Around 20 people spent most of Friday setting up. “People kept coming throughout the day asking to help,” Ms. Arad said. “A local physician came when she finished her day’s work and got on her knees to fix the posters that we hung on each table.”
The choice of Tenafly was not accidental. One of the Hamas hostages, Edan Alexander, is a 19-year-old Tenafly High School alumnus. He volunteered to serve in the IDF soon after his 2022 graduation and was near the Gaza border during the surprise attack.
“No family should ever have to experience this unfathomable pain, and I will do everything I can to reunite Edan with his family safely,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J. 5th Dist.), who met with the Alexander family on October 23.
“The United States must stand ready to provide Israel with the resources she needs to defend herself, and stand by her until every hostage, including Edan Alexander, is returned home, and Hamas terrorists are brought to justice,” Mr. Gottheimer said at the meeting.
On October 24, Bergen County Jewish schools dedicated a day of learning and prayer for the “quick and healthy” release of Mr. Alexander and the rest of the hostages.
A relative of Mr. Alexander spoke at the empty Shabbat table event and lit Shabbat candles with the aunt of another hostage, 19-year-old Noa Marciano.
Rabbi Yitzchak Gershovitz from Lubavitch on the Palisades recited the kiddush, and Rabbi Jordan Millstein from Temple Sinai — both in Tenafly — WWW said the blessing over the challah. Local residents, some originally from Israel, volunteered to play the harmonica and organ for the crowd and sing the Israeli and American national anthems.
Ms. Arad and Ms. Chen spoke to the assemblage; so did Steve Rogers, CEO of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, and Jason Shames, CEO and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Ms. Chen noted that Tenafly Mayor Mark Zinna and Tenafly Police Chief Robert Chamberlain were extremely supportive of the event.
“The police closed the road for us and stayed there the whole time,” she said. “Nobody felt threatened, not even for a split second.”
It was not only Jews who came to the empty Shabbat table. Ms. Arad said, for example, that one non-Jewish woman bought a “Bring Them Home Now” T-shirt for her granddaughter. “We had bought 1,000 T-shirts, and the money from these sales is going to the JCC’s Israel Emergency Fund,” Ms. Arad explained.
A high school teacher from Ramsey, also not Jewish, told Ms. Arad that he was taking pictures of the table to show the students in his diversity and tolerance class.
“We are hopeful that this message will resonate worldwide to accomplish the swift release of all of the brothers and sisters who were kidnapped and remain hostages,” Ms. Arad said.
The event concluded with her heartfelt words to the captives: “If you can hear us, if you can feel us, wherever you are, in the tunnels underground in Gaza, please know we are all here for you. We, and the Jewish world, and many others in the world are thinking of you, praying for you, and hope for your very prompt return home.”
With that, she wished Shabbat shalom to the crowd and signaled them to release 229 red balloons, accompanied by the chant “Bring them home! Bring them home!”
In case that wish does not come true very soon, Ms. Arad said, the community is already formulating plans for another public event on their behalf.