When he woke up on Oct. 7 and learned that Hamas had attacked Israel, Rabbi David Goodman “obsessed following the news,” he said.
The rabbi spent six months in Israel as an exchange student. He lived there for a year in his 40s “doing volunteer work and studying.” Earlier in 2023, the rabbi went to Israel with a nonprofit organization called the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and helped build playgrounds in rural areas in the West Bank. He also has family members, four of his wife’s four siblings, who live in Israel.
But here in the United States, the rabbi has a congregation. He could not just hit refresh on his phone all day.
Goodman realized that he had a Simchat Torah service scheduled for 4 p.m. The rabbi and the synagogue’s 36 members decided to cancel it. In its place, they had what Goodman described as “a three-hour group therapy session.”
“People are crying. People are angry. And people are confused,” the rabbi said.
Different congregants came to the Zoom with different levels of understanding, according to Goodman. Some had “a great deal of familiarity with what’s going on,” he said. Others “feel it on an elemental level,” he added. But for some, the rabbi had to explain why Hamas had sovereignty over Gaza.
But regardless of their levels of understanding, everyone felt a similar way.
“People were taking for granted that there were certain kinds of dangers Israel could face. But I think invasion was not one of them,” Goodman said. “Everybody was caught by surprise by what happened.”
That initial processing session was not enough. The rabbi scheduled another one for Oct. 10. The congregants got back on Zoom. They talked. Whoever had anything to say could just share.
“One member said she hadn’t been able to sleep. People were not clear on whether the people in border communities were still in danger. It seemed like the acute danger was over. What will happen next?” Goodman said.
Then the rabbi spoke.
“I talked about how my sadness and grief came from the fact that not only were 1,000 Israelis dead, but there might be more victims in Gaza as a result of the inevitable response already underway there,” he said. “Thousands have died. And thousands more will.”
“Even under the best of circumstances, the cost will be terrible, and it will be paid by both the guilty and the innocent. It’s a terrible thing,” he continued.
“All Israelis, my family included, remain in danger. My wife’s brother, wife and son were in and out of their bomb shelter in their apartment building in suburban Tel Aviv,” he said.
Members shared how they were shocked by the horrors that Hamas attackers had inflicted on innocent Israelis. But other members talked about “Israel’s dominance or occupation of Gaza, and other people were not ready to hear that,” Goodman said.
A congregant who’s an Israel Defense Forces veteran said, “Palestinians are going to explode as long as the occupation continues,” the rabbi recalled. Someone else said, “How can you justify that?”
There were no personal attacks, according to Goodman. They concluded by singing the Mi Sheberach prayer for healing and coming up with a list of organizations to which they could donate. It included the American Friends of Magen David Adom, which pays for ambulances, the Israel Trauma Coalition, which helps with recovery efforts, and the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey.
As a small community with no property, Nafshenu does not gather for Shabbat each week. But on Oct. 14, it organized another Zoom call. The synagogue held a Yizkor ceremony to remember those who have died.
Goodman wanted the service to emphasize the spiritual over the political.
“I’m not a politician. I’m a rabbi,” he said. “From me, what they need at this point…we need to be centered. We need to be whole.”
Nafshenu’s five pre-bar and bat mitzvah-age children attend religious school at the South Jersey Hebrew Sunday School. Goodman serves as the school’s sixth- and seventh-grade teacher.
He talked to the kids about the war.
“This is a reminder that we have not reached the end of days. There is a tendency in the American Jewish community to feel triumphalist. We’re safe here,” he said. “Evil exists. Pain exists. Pain and suffering have not disappeared from our lives as Jews.”
At the same time, the rabbi’s family members in Israel are OK. His 10-year-old nephew sent him a video recently saying, “We will not be defeated.”
“This was his message to his American family,” Goodman said.