As Israel is attacked, a rabbi’s prayer ‘for calm to return to that part of the world quickly’


For Rabbi Steven Lowenstein of Glencoe’s Am Shalom synagogue, the Shabbat Simchat Torah service he led on Saturday, hours after Palestinian forces attacked Israel, was one of the most difficult of his career.

He’s been to Israel more than 100 times and his remarks about Israelis killed and captured in the latest attacks punctuated the otherwise joyous celebration of the bat mitzvah of my cousin, Nola Gleason.

Noting the surprise attacks came 50 years to the day of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Lowenstein said at the beginning of the service, “We pray from the deepest places of our hearts for calm to return to that part of the world quickly, incredibly quickly.

“You know when we gather, we don’t have to pray for a perfect world. We do have to pray for a better world.”

Afterwards I asked the rabbi how hard it was for him to conduct the service, given everything.

“Incredibly difficult, to still be able to find the joy with my phone pinging and red alarms going off and people texting in the middle of the service asking what they can do,” he replied.

Rabbi Steven Lowenstein of Glencoe’s Am Shalom

Rabbi Steven Lowenstein of Glencoe’s Am Shalom

As I write this, the Jerusalem Post reports at least 250 Israelis have been killed and more than 1,500 injured. A number of people have been captured. A senior U.S. official briefing reporters on Saturday said the hostages included children.

After 2,200 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation “Swords of Iron” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war.

The Iran-backed Hamas attackers chose a Saturday where Jews were observing not only the weekly Sabbath, but the holiday of Simchat Torah, which adds particular meaning to the day. Each week a portion of the five books of the Torah is read. Simchat Torah marks the end of one annual cycle and the beginning of a new one. My cousin splendidly read the last passage of the Torah’s fifth book, Deuteronomy, and the start of the first book, Genesis, which tells of how God created the heavens and earth.

“We’re so lucky,” Lowenstein told the congregation, “but we know right now there’s a thousand people injured in Israel right now. And our hearts are so incredibly heavy. There are families that are grieving. There are losses of life of Jews and Palestinians.”

The attack started early in the morning in Israel, with the White House alerted at 2:30 a.m., the senior administration official said. President Joe Biden talked to Netanyahu a few hours later.

“When I spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning, I told him the United States stands with the people of Israel in the face of this terrorist assaults. Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Full stop,” Biden said.

“There is never justification for terrorist acts. And my administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.

“Let me say this as clearly as I can: This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage. The world is watching.”

Speaking of exploitation: It took little time for former President Donald Trump and the others also seeking the 2024 GOP presidential nomination to pander to their base voters, including GOP allied evangelical Christians for whom defense of Israel is a central cause, by blaming Biden for this terrible attack. They asserted, incorrectly, that a U.S.-Iran prisoner swap deal last September helped finance it.

As part of that deal, $6 billion in what had been frozen Iranian funds were to be transferred to Qatar for humanitarian use. During the briefing, the Biden administration official said “no funds” have been transferred yet, so none of that money has been spent. That money is still in Qatar.

Lowenstein, the author of the book, “For the Love of Israel” told me afterwards he had been up since 5 a.m. watching the news.

Said Lowenstein, “throughout Jewish history, every time, we’ve been, you know, scheduled to be destroyed, we always find a way to find that new life, and walking into the service today, I knew I had to find that life.”


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