Synagogues throughout the Philadelphia area have expressed support for Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. Many sent busloads of people to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14 for the March for Israel rally.
Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia has organized a different response.
It has no stated position on the Israel-Hamas war, according to Rabbi Monica Gomery. Gomery does not call herself a Zionist. Rather, she wants “Israelis and Palestinians to find a way to coexist.”
In the month and a half since the attack, Kol Tzedek members have helped plan cease-fire rallies. Many are part of Jewish Voice for Peace, an activist organization that stands against the war.
Gomery and another Kol Tzedek rabbi, Ari Lev Fornari, are part of Rabbis for Ceasefire, a national group with more than 180 members. On Nov. 13, they joined the group for a Shacharit, or morning prayer, outside the U.S. Capitol. Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri joined them.
“We built a synagogue in the streets in front of the Capitol building and invited people to pour out their hearts in prayer,” said Gomery.
Kol Tzedek members attended the event, according to the rabbi. Many helped plan and organize the service. The next day, they met with members of Congress who signed the cease-fire resolution on Oct. 16 that Bush introduced.
“People are being told by their families and clergy and politicians and the media that if they stand up for a cease-fire, they aren’t Jewish anymore,” Gomery said. “It’s heartbreaking and demoralizing. And it’s not true.”
Gomery, 38, is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors from Czechoslovakia and Romania. Her ancestors moved to Venezuela and Israel after World War II. The rabbi’s family ended up in Venezuela. But her cousins and second cousins remain in Israel.
Gomery fears for their safety, she said. The rabbi views Israeli and Palestinian destinies as “inextricably linked.”
A cease-fire is only the first step, she said. Gomery also wants to see a diplomatic resolution. Hamas is still holding more than 200 hostages. More than 11,000 people in Gaza have died during the conflict, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.
“We can’t move to peace and harmony in that land without an end to the bombing,” Gomery said. “The scale of violence and destruction wrought here is traumatizing future generations, and that means it’s strengthening Hamas.”
The rabbi described Kol Tzedek’s congregation as “on the left end of the (political) spectrum.” But there is still a diversity of viewpoints. To ensure that members heard each other out, two, Wilbur Bryant II and Cathy Cohen, organized a night of small-group conversations at the synagogue.
About 60 people showed up, according to Fornari. They split off into groups of four or five and just listened to each other.
“There are the binaries of are you for or against. It loses the nuances,” Cohen said. “It’s essential for congregations to speak this way to each other.”
Not everyone in this 370-household congregation is part of Jewish Voice for Peace and the cease-fire actions, according to Cohen. But Fornari, who is, wanted to give everybody a space to talk.
“It softens your heart. It lets you learn more,” Cohen said.
Bryant II was in a group of six. Five of them agreed with his stance on the war:
“The fact that innocent people are dying. What’s going on is not a reflection of their Judaism. No one said that Israel shouldn’t exist. We all are fine that Israel exists. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things.”
But one man disagreed. He said he thought Israel was right.
Bryant II’s body tensed up and he felt he wanted to say something. But then he stopped himself and found that he was “not angry or anxious,” he said.
“Millions of people are arguing with each other. Relationships are being threatened. We wanted to do something different,” the member added.