Large crowd attends community Israel gathering in New Orleans

Organizers of the New Orleans Stands With Israel community gathering on Oct. 9 had printed 400 handouts. It turned out to be nowhere near enough.

About 10 minutes after the scheduled 7 p.m. start, Rabbi David Gerber referenced Jewish Standard Time, and said there were still over 100 people outside Gates of Prayer in Metairie, waiting to get in.

In all, Gerber said, about 750 were in the building for the community event, and another 700 were watching the Livestream on the Gates of Prayer website.

Inside, rabbis and cantors from all of the community’s synagogues took part, from Reform to Chabad. Gerber said “we are blessed to have a community that does this… it is a testament to the beauty of the New Orleans Jewish community.”

Many expressed how the gathering, and the display of unity, was important personally after a harrowing weekend watching events unfold in Israel.

Touro Synagogue Rabbi Katie Bauman, who closed the event with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” said “we all needed to be together” at what she called “a beautiful gathering.”

Jonny Lake, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans board, said “your presence here strengthens me, and let us all strengthen each other,” before reading a meditation.

Cantorial Soloist Jordan Lawrence and Cantor Rebecca Garfein sing “Oseh Shalom”

Gerber led the event as rabbi of Gates of Prayer and in his role as the head of the Greater New Orleans Clergy Council. He told the crowd that the Clergy Council, the leaders from the local synagogues, “are here for you” and would be convening services and events in an effort to find “the best ways we can support Israel and support each other.”

Gerber noted that as of that evening, over 1,000 Israelis had been “senselessly murdered,” comparing the toll in the small country proportionally to the death toll at Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization” with the goal of “elimination of the Jewish state and ethnic cleansing of Jewish people from the land of Israel,” Gerber said. “This is a battle of good and evil.”

For 15 years Israel has dealt with barrages of rockets coming from Gaza, with the international community expecting Israel to just live with it. But now, “no longer can Israel allow a hostile terrorist entity to take residence next door,” he said.

“Israel is battling a cowardly foe. They are fighting an enemy that will hide rockets in a school, that will fire rockets from hospital rooftops — a soulless barbaric enemy, and Israel must prevail.”

Robert French, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said his “heart is broken.” His brother and his family live in Israel, and his mother was visiting when the attack occurred.

A rocket from Gaza landed on the house behind the home where his sister-in-law’s parents live, near the Gaza border.

He called for unity “against the evil of barbarism, against Hamas’ monstrosity.

“This is not a mere battle between Israel and Hamas, this is the world’s battle, against the dark forces threatening our civilization, threatening our values and the very moral foundations on which our morality stands.”

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin from Chabad said he was speaking not only as a rabbi, but “as a father of a daughter who is studying in Israel this year.”

He said a way to assist in these times is to ensure that homes have mezuzahs on them. “Every mezuzah placed on the door of a Jewish home in New Orleans brings added protection for our brothers and sisters under assault in our holy land. Let’s do our part.”

He then recited a prayer for the Israel Defense Forces.

Rabbi Yossie Nemes from Chabad in Metairie called his 18-year-old daughter on Sunday night. She called the events “a small Holocaust, a Crusade,” and did not want to be just sitting in her dorm. She and her classmates donated blood, then she received permission to miss classes so she could babysit for a nurse who needed to pull an extra shift to tend to the wounded.

Nemes said “The Holocaust was brought to us this Saturday morning. A war we did not want but must win was brought to us this Saturday morning.”

He urged the lighting of Shabbat candles and putting on tefillin. The candles, he said, “add tremendous light and give strength to our brothers and sisters.”

In wearing tefillin, “the name of the Lord is upon you,” he said. “Tefillin causes the righteous nations to respect us, and our enemies to fear us.” He said the local congregations are ready to assist anyone who wants to take on those mitzvot.

Before doing part of “Hallelujah,” Bauman spoke of Leonard Cohen’s experiences just over 50 years ago, during the Yom Kippur War, as he felt he had to do something. He was “in the Sinai desert with young Israeli soldiers who were experiencing the worst moment of their lives. All he could do was sit with them and sing with them, pray with them, and let them know through his presence that they were not alone.”

That experience changed him, she said. “We are not with those brave young soldiers there tonight… all we can do is what we have done – stand for them, sing to them, pray for them, let them know through our lifted voices, that they, our people, our family, are not alone.”

French read a note from Rosh Ha’Ayin, New Orleans’ Partnership community in Israel and Birmingham’s sister city. “We are touched by your support messages and feel the solidarity from afar. What we are experiencing here is unprecedented, and nothing can prepare us for such horrific acts.

“We are glued to the news and take every casualty personally. We worry deeply about those wounded, missing or abducted. Everyone we know has a son, nephew, father or brother who is now drafted into reserve duty.”

While Rosh Ha’Ayin is not in the direct conflict area, they are welcoming residents from Southern communities, donating blood and funds, and finding other ways to help.

“We feel the unwavering support from overseas communities and the U.S. government, and it means so much to us,” the message concluded.

“Let us show them and the entire world that New Orleans stands with Israel,” French said. “We stand by Israel’s right to defend itself and protect the lives of their precious citizens.”

He added, “This gathering and others elsewhere are the power grid of justice and humanity, shedding light and strength onto our beloved Israel.”

An emphasis of the evening was the support Israel is receiving from the general community. “We’ve had to stand up through thousands of years of oppression, intimidation and exile,” Gerber said. “Today we are blessed, for one of the very rare times in Jewish history we are not standing alone.”

Aaron Ahlquist, Director of Community Engagement for the Anti-Defamation League South Region, said “we are grateful for the support from Jews and non-Jews alike, including public officials and leaders from the civil rights, religious, business, sports and other communities, many of whom are here with us tonight.”

He said antisemites are celebrating the Hamas attacks, and there have been rallies in celebration in numerous places around the world. “Let’s be honest, the murder and brutalization of Jews by Hamas terrorists is indefensible and inexcusable, and to justify or validate Hamas’ murderous actions is antisemitism.”

Ahlquist said the community needs “all people of good conscience to stand with Israel, to stand with civilians, to stand against evil and stand against hate. We need to focus on the common humanity of both sides, and that means rooting out those individuals and organizations that promote an ideology of inhumanity and hate.”

Alan Franco read messages of support from Reps. Steve Scalise and Troy Carter. Scalise called it a “deliberate, unprovoked and evil attack by Iranian-backed terrorists,” and supports Israel “as they take all steps necessary to eradicate these terrorists.”

Gerber praised local law enforcement, saying “the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department, the New Orleans Police Department, they are part of our family, and thank you for being part of our family.”

He added that if an incident happens to Jews anywhere in the world, “they are already sending a patrol car” to check on local institutions. “We don’t even have to ask, they show up for us, all the time.”

He also noted that the evening was supposed to be his first meeting as a member of the JPSO chaplains. Instead, they cancelled the meeting and came to the gathering.

Cantor Kevin Margolius of Touro Synagogue started the event with “Adonai Li” on guitar.

Rabbi Daniel Sherman of Temple Sinai led Psalm 23, and Shir Chadash Rabbi Scott Hoffman recited Psalm 144. Rabbi Barbara Metzinger, a hospital chaplain at Ochsner, read “Peace, Please,” a poem by Rabbi Karen Kedar.

Jordan Lawrence, cantorial soloist at Gates of Prayer, did a rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold.”

Temple Sinai Cantor Rebecca Garfein, who said the gathering “is doing my heart good,” sang Hannah Senesh’s “Eli, Eli.” Lawrence and Garfein later collaborated for “Oseh Shalom.”

Rabbi Phil Kaplan of Beth Israel led the Mishebeirach for captives, as an estimated 100 to 150 Israelis and foreign nationals were abducted by Hamas and brought back to Gaza. Jack Roane, a student at Loyola, and Tulane student Jack Zucker led prayers for Israel.

Everyone on the bimah stood to lead the mourner’s Kaddish.

Toward the end of the program, students from Jewish Community Day School led the singing of Hatikvah. Head of School Brad Philipson said they start each week with Havdalah, the Pledge of Allegiance, and then the national anthems of the U.S. and Israel.

“These children represent the hopes of all of us, the Jewish people,” he said.

At one point, there was a pause in the proceedings so adults could scan a QR code on the handout and read an eyewitness account of the Hamas massacre at an all-night music festival in the desert, where at least 260 Israelis were killed. There were also numerous accounts of abductions and rapes. Due to the graphic nature, the adults in attendance could choose to read the account individually, rather than it be read aloud in front of the children.

French said “in a few days, none of us will forget how this began… 2023 is not 1938. We vowed for eternity, never again. Am Yisrael Chai.”

Pro-Hamas rally

Just before the event in Metairie, a “March for Palestinian Liberation” was held in downtown New Orleans, sponsored by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, New Orleans Community Oversight for Police, Students United at UNO and Jewish Voice for Peace New Orleans. About 100 attended, marching up the street.

Posters included “Free All Palestine,” “Resistance is Justified when People are Occupied” and “Victory to the Palestinian Resistance.” There were chants of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free,” which is a call for the elimination of Israel.