Rabbi Adam Wright leads the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end of the community gathering. Photos by James Henry Brook.
A packed auditorium at Birmingham’s Levite Jewish Community Center heard messages of comfort and resilience, along with some unpleasant truths, on Oct. 10.
The Israel solidarity event attracted over 650 reservations in the 26 hours that registration was open, necessitating an overflow room for about 150 in the LJCC gym. Twelve hours later, about 900 had watched the livestream.
Along with many representatives of the local Jewish community, the program included Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, retired U.S. Marines General Charles Krulak, and Denise Gilmore, senior director of the Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office of social justice and racial equity.
The event opened with Temple Emanu-El Cantor Robby Wittner singing the opening for a version of the Prayer for Israel. Rabbi Yossi Friedman from Chabad of Alabama would later recite the entire prayer.
Friedman said the prayer should not be done in despair. “Everything we do is meaningful. Every good deed, every act of charity, of kindness, of reaching out,” so he led the prayer “with strength in our heart.”
General Charles Krulak, former commandant of the U.S. Marines Corps and a passionate supporter of Israel who led Moshe Dayan through a visit to Vietnam during that war, shared some operational wisdom about the situation, and what to look for on the Israeli and U.S. sides.
“I’m pissed,” he said, “with all due respect to the ladies in the audience.” He has been to war three times and was shot twice, but “this wasn’t war. I’ve never seen anything like this. This was barbaric.”
Six years ago, he said, there was a national security document that shifted U.S. focus away from the Middle East, saying the biggest threat comes from China, then North Korea, Russia and Iran. “Sure enough, our focus came off the Middle East and went to Asia,” and then all of a sudden, Ukraine enters the picture and all sorts of military equipment goes there.
“Then just a couple days ago, we saw real barbarism, real war, come to America’s greatest strategic ally.” The U.S. moved the Ford carrier battle group into the Eastern Mediterranean in response.
Krulak explained, “Israel is America’s aircraft carrier on land. It’s right in the middle of the most dangerous area in the world, and you have given it to us. We don’t have to man it, we don’t have to fuel it, we get to fly on and off it without getting clearance.” But in this instance, the U.S. said it is not enough.
He explained that the carrier battle group “has a lot of bombs on it, and they are going to go into Israel almost immediately, because you’re going to run out of bombs real quick.”
The group also has operational hospitals and surveillance capabilities that enhance and can tie into Israel’s systems such as Iron Dome. “It’s going to increase the capability of the IDF,” he said.
He called Iron Dome “a remarkable system,” but Israel would run out of the interceptors “rather quickly.” He said Israel had recently sold a lot of the interceptors to the U.S. Army. “Last night, they started flying back in to Israel, to replenish what was lost.”
He said that the anger he feels about the situation “pales to insignificance with what is felt by the IDF and by the Israeli people sitting there under the cone of fire.”
President Joe Biden, he said, was very clear about the U.S. backing Israel, but he did not use the word “restraint,” as has always been urged of Israel and the Jews when attacked.
“You’re going to see a very tough fight ahead,” Krulak said, and asking if everyone was prepared for the truth of the hostage situation, noted “you’re not gonna get them back. The chances of getting them back are slim and none. You’ve seen what they do. You’ve seen how they act.”
One must say “never again,” he asserted. “My counterparts on the Joint Chiefs of Staff are looking hard at what they can do to help their brothers and sisters in arms in Israel… they’re going to come up with a plan and it is going to shock people.”
When that happens, it will be vital to stand up against the Palestinian public relations machine, and keep focus and resolve.
Standing as community
Rabbi Steven Henkin of Temple Beth-El said a teacher of his often said there were two ways to measure the strength of a community — how a community comes together to celebrate is one way, but a better indicator is how a community comes together to mourn and grieve. “To see everyone here. Fellow Jews of all denominations, our non-Jewish friends and allies, gives me hope and encouragement about the strength of our Birmingham community.”
Since the Oct. 7 attack, “I myself have cycled between hurt, and anger, sadness, grief, disgust shock, fear and plenty of other emotions,” and others in the room have had similar reactions, for a wide range of reasons.
“For those who don’t feel like it affects them… you know someone for whom it does. We are all grieving, we are all mourning,” whether for individuals killed, the loss of a sense of safety, or for the reminder of the cruelty of humanity.
Henkin then went through various emotions, all with the message that if this is how you feel, “you are not alone” as others are feeling the same. The event is to “comfort and support each other in everything we are feeling,” and “use these feelings to fuel our actions.”
Danny Cohn, CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, called on everyone to try and match their Annual Campaign pledge, or make a contribution if they are not annual donors, toward an emergency campaign goal that had not yet been determined by the Jewish Federations of North America.
The national goal, announced a few days later, is $500 million, with Birmingham seeking to raise $1.4 million.
Cohn said the attacks “have shaken us all, but it is in moments like these that our unity, faith and resolve shine the brightest.” The response has been a singular message: “Hineni, here I am,” he said. “We are here for Israel, for our brothers and sisters that face terror and fear, reminding them they are not alone.”
The work goes beyond words, he reminded, “ensuring our brothers and sisters in Israel have all they need to rebuild, recover and rise.”
The community needs to respond to and support the rebuilding efforts, “one brick at a time.”
He said that the community’s Hineni should “not be just a whisper but a roar… and let it be a beacon of hope for those who feel surrounded by darkness.”
While normally the Jewish phrase for the fallen is that their memory should be for a blessing, he said “let their memory be for a revolution — a revolution to eradication terrorists and terror.”
Steven Brickman said he has a niece in Tel Aviv, and two cousins from a Kibbutz near Gaza who “remain missing and unaccounted for.”
He said “All of this attack was reminiscent of the horrors deep in our Jewish soul, in our past, with the Tsarist pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the Nazi death camps that killed 6 million of us. We as Jewish and Christians who love Israel understand this weekend was the worst in the history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”
He expressed outrage “that some in this city and country and throughout the world would seek to condone and justify, and even celebrate this violence and terrorism against civilians. This is disgusting and hurtful, and anyone who engages in this behavior is not our friend or ally.”
Brickman said it was “pure terrorism, not resistance.”
Marshall said he was there not as attorney general and not as a member of the Jewish community, but “stands with this community, stands with the nation of Israel and the people of that great nation.”
He said the events of Oct. 7 were personal to him, partly because of his many trips to Israel, where he felt “like I went home.”
Two months ago, he was in Sderot, overlooking Gaza, at a memorial for six soldiers who had died defending that city. He said the residents knew at any moment they could be under siege, but they spoke of living in harmony with those around them.
On that same trip, he represented the state in placing a wreath at the memorial in Yad Vashem, “to say we have not forgotten,” and as a resolve to fight against antisemitism.
“Tonight, I stand with you,” he said, offering prayers for Israel and especially the captives. “It’s important for us to be here. It’s even more important to leave here and continue to act.”
Gilmore alluded to a controversy from over the weekend, when Woodfin posted a tweet in support of Israel, then took it down after a significant online backlash.
She read a statement that Woodfin issued on Oct. 9. “I want to make my position very clear: The attack on Israel was an act of terrorism by Hamas. The killing and kidnapping of innocent people should be unacceptable to everyone. I support Israel protecting the lives of its innocent citizens, including its children.”
She said the city of Birmingham stands in solidarity with the Jewish community, and this year’s 60th anniversary of the civil rights events in the city is a reminder of “the historical bond between the Jewish and Black communities in the pursuit of human dignity and freedom from oppression.”
Gilomre added, “The City of Birmingham is heartbroken over the senseless attacks against civilians in Israel.”
Elad Resnick, an Israeli doing a fellowship at Children’s of Alabama, said it was a strange feeling being here during an unprecedented attack on Israel.
While events such as the Holocaust and the Russian pogroms are being invoked, Resnick said that with Israel, the Jewish world is far from the time when those things could take place without anyone caring or anything being done about it.
He noted that it had been a difficult year in Israel, with political and social division, but events like this unify the country and show how much “we have to lose.”
He added, “You can have your views on many things, but we can all agree there is no excusing this.”
It isn’t an existential fight, Resnick said. ‘Not only we will beat our enemies, we will have a positive ethos inside Israel.”
Asaf Stein, who was born in Israel and grew up in Birmingham, led the prayers for soldiers and for captives.
Stein was a Lone Soldier in 2014 and was involved in that year’s Gaza operation. “I received a lot of support then, very much in the same spirit we are seeing now.”
Toward the end of the program, an emotional Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Adam Wright led the Mourner’s Kaddish. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this,” he admitted, then was joined at the podium by Wittner, who led Hatikvah at the end of the program.
Cohn said the first thing people can do, to show up, has been accomplished, “and there will be more opportunities to show up.”
After the event, there was an opportunity to write letters of support that would be sent to Birmingham’s sister city in Israel, Rosh Ha’Ayin.