Opinion: Why attending synagogue has been difficult for me

Despite traditional Jewish encouragement for vigorous theological debate, in the community only a small space is allowed for public criticism of matters Jewish, especially when it comes to Israel.

(Ariel Schalit | AP) Israeli soldiers take up positions near the Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, Friday, Dec. 29, 2023. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel.

For years, I have attended a thriving local synagogue with a charismatic rabbi, who was born in Europe and whose parents suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. The rabbi is a warm, effusive person with successful adult children. He greets the male attendees of his services with vigorous handshakes and big, open-hearted smiles. It is a joy to be welcomed by him and a pleasure, by and large, to attend the services.

By and large, I say, because differences do arise — and since the synagogue is orthodox, women sit separately from men, and the women’s faces are obscured by a mechitzah, which is a screen that physically separates men from women and also blocks women from the sight of the men, and vice versa. This practice is not appealing to everyone. But what distresses me more is a psalm that’s recited after each Saturday service, or whenever a need arises.

This psalm invokes God’s protection, and the rabbi regularly requests that men stay longer to recite it for Israeli soldiers. Always, upon this request, a small voice comes forth in me to ask: “Why don’t we invoke protection for all soldiers?” In fact, why don’t we pray for nonmilitary solutions to conflicts? I’ve never asked this question in the synagogue; I’ve only suffered my silence in silence.

And why? Why do I hesitate to ask the question? It is because I don’t want to appear to publicly question our support for Israel. I don’t want to appear equivocal about Zionism, or less than committed to our people who underwent such great suffering in the not too distant past. Also, despite traditional Jewish encouragement for vigorous theological debate, in the community only a small space is allowed for public criticism of matters Jewish, especially when it comes to Israel.

Considering this space, in February 2024, I know it is especially small because Israeli troops are in Gaza, seeking to eradicate Hamas, a Palestinian force that recently murdered more than 1,300 Israelis in a manner reminiscent of the Holocaust. It is especially small because Israel is responding to the trauma of physical annihilation that the nation was created to prevent. It is especially small because Jewish pain over violated vulnerability is so deep as to seem endless.

For a state to emerge out of the ashes of its murdered millions, out of genocidal devastation, is no small matter. For Jews, Israel means our return to life, our redemption, our capacity to embrace what was so long denied — renewal of our sacred language; exploration of roots and ancestry; expansion of our history, culture, traditions, and aspirations; and the right to determine our destiny on our terms, and not as subjects of other societies, cultures and nationalities.

Israel’s existence is not a small victory; Israel is everything for a Jew, because in its existence and thriving we observe our vital life and flowering


Yet while executing a necessary campaign to defang Hamas, Israeli Defense Forces are — to our dismay — regularly killing Palestinian civilians — men, women and children — in a manner reminiscent of Hamas’ Oct. 7 depredations. In our small space for reckoning, however, we don’t acknowledge this exchange of atrocities because, for “loyal” Jews, Israel is the defender of the nation, while its Palestinian adversary (and neighbor) is what it has always been: an enemy bent on its destruction.

I have only sporadically attended the synagogue since Oct. 7. I would like to return and pray for the well being of Israeli and Palestinian soldiers. In fact, I would like to pray that we recognize and admit the Palestinian people’s need for a homeland that will have the same blessings of safety, prosperity, and national development that we passionately pursue for ourselves. I would like to recite Psalm 121 for all of us. Can I really do anything less?

the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm —

he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

both now and forevermore.

Leslie Kelen

Leslie Kelen is a child of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and the author or editor of five books, including the recently republished “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement.”

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