In Har Nof, introspection, but no religious war
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In Har Nof, introspection, but no religious war

In shadow of Tuesday's terrorist attack, congregants dismiss the notion that Temple Mount tensions drove rampage, say they need to 'be stronger, pray harder'

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

An ultra-Orthodox man examines a bullet hole inside a synagogue where two terrorists from East Jerusalem killed five people the day before. November 19, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox man examines a bullet hole inside a synagogue where two terrorists from East Jerusalem killed five people the day before. November 19, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With the sounds of the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer in the air, several young ultra-Orthodox girls in pale blue shirts pause in front of the stately synagogue on their way to school to count the bullet holes riddling its front windows.

As she stands outside the eerie scene of the bloodbath two days before — where four Jewish worshipers were axed and shot to death mid-prayer, and a traffic policeman who tried to stop the carnage was also killed — one girl, no older than seven, whispers to her friend: “pigua.” Terror attack.

When the regular worshipers trickle out somberly at the end of Thursday’s morning services at Congregation Bnei Torah in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, there is no talk of discontent with the government, no rage or calls for revenge.

The men – many of them over 50 – seem unperturbed that the security guard stationed there Wednesday is already gone. In quiet conversation, they dismiss talk of an imminent religious war or ostensible links between the massacre and Temple Mount tensions. The ultra-Orthodox congregants, who harbor no Zionist fervor, are deeply anguished by the murderous horror of Tuesday morning. They don’t seek political explanations for the attack, but, rather, calmly urge a strengthened religious resolve.

While the attack has spurred debate among secular pundits as to whether a cataclysmic religious war is in the works due to the rising tension on the Temple Mount, as PA President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened, more than a dozen Har Nof worshipers maintain that within the community, no one is linking the two incidents.

Aryeh Kupinsky (screen capture: Channel 2)
Aryeh Kupinsky (screen capture: Channel 2)

The overt religious overtones to the massacre — the worshipers slain in their prayer shawl and phylacteries, the blood-drenched holy books — were not lost on the eyewitnesses to the attack who compared it to the Holocaust or Eastern European pogroms. In his eulogy for three of the victims, Rabbi Mordechai Rubin, the rabbi of the synagogue, invoked a string of biblical and Talmudic references from Lamentations to Abraham to Rabbi Akiva. And yet the biblical resonance of the carnage stops short of contemporary relevance for the worshipers of the Har Nof synagogue.

Blood on prayer shawls and prayer books inside Har Nof's Kehilat Yaakov synagogue, where two Palestinian terrorists attacked worshipers at prayer, killing four, on November 18, 2014. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90)
Blood on prayer shawls and prayer books inside Har Nof’s Kehilat Yaakov synagogue, where two Palestinian terrorists attacked worshipers at prayer, killing four, on November 18, 2014. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90)

Yosef Pasternak, a teacher in the yeshiva next door who hid in the kitchen during the attack, says that he’s heard that politicians are beginning to speak of a possible religious war, “but [the congregants are] definitely [not thinking] in that direction.”

Rabbi Moshe Twersky (photo credit: Israel Foreign Ministry)
Rabbi Moshe Twersky (photo credit: Israel Foreign Ministry)

The mild-mannered teacher steps away to softly rebuke one of his students for not going to pray in the yeshiva congregation, and returns a few minutes later. He makes light of the lack of security. “Nothing is going to change,” he says with a shrug. “We must be stronger, pray harder.”

The sentiment is echoed by several prayer-goers at the sparsely attended service, who dismiss the connection out of hand and who shy away from criticizing the government for the security situation, instead invoking a larger divine plan.

Abraham Samuel Goldberg (screen capture: Channel 2)
Abraham Samuel Goldberg (screen capture: Channel 2)

Yitzhak Talansky describes the pervading feeling in the synagogue as “shock, unreality,” and says that “people are probably hesitant to come,” in explaining the small turnout.

“Truthfully, we’re not that kind of congregation,” he says of the lack of public outrage. “Political activists and all that. [It’s] much more [about] – God sent this, what can we do to improve ourselves.”

Eli Kula, a Modern Orthodox man who generally prays at the synagogue across the street, also says he doesn’t think there is a connection between Palestinian unrest centered on a dispute over the Temple Mount and the gruesome murders. Kula, who defends the right of Jewish activists to ascend to the holy site “if they are believers, and really just want to pray,” came to the targeted synagogue on Thursday morning in a show of solidarity, because “we are one people.”

He describes the atmosphere in the synagogue as “painful, grim, mournful,” and says “you don’t have to be a genius to sense it.”

Inside the synagogue, the halls, just recently splattered with blood, are scrubbed clean.

No more than 20 people are in attendance at the early morning service. Yaakov Cohen, a teenage yeshiva boy who learns in a school in the same complex, agrees that people are scared to attend.

“They went through a trauma,” he says, adding that people seemed “very stressed, tense.”

Slain Druze policeman Zidan Saif, 30 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Slain Druze policeman Zidan Saif, 30 (photo credit: Courtesy)

But other congregants noted that the 6:30 a.m. prayer service was always small, with the larger one upstairs, beginning at 7 a.m., much more popular. That the terrorists chose to target the small minyan which is “like a family,” rather than the larger gathering, is “part of the miracle,” says Yehoshua Liff, a resident of the area and regular member of the early morning congregation.

Outside, two Sephardic women from the neighborhood who asked to be identified only as Yael and Ruti scoff at the notion of heightened security.

“We know it’s not that [the problem]. It’s not the security guard. If God doesn’t protect the city, there will be no protection,” Yael says.

Rabbi Kalman Levine (Photo credit: Channel 2)
Rabbi Kalman Levine (Photo credit: Channel 2)

The two, both acquainted with the four slain men, shudder in recalling Tuesday’s attack, and praise Druze policeman Zidan Saif for his heroic efforts. “It’s a day I will never forget,” says Yael, who watched the entire attack unfold from her porch. While they, like the men in the synagogue, believe the attack was unrelated to the Temple Mount unrest, the two maintain that the death of a Palestinian bus driver on Sunday night, which an autopsy has indicated to be a suicide but which many  Palestinians believe to be a revenge attack, drove the massacre.

“We need to look at our actions, study why this tragedy befell us,” one says. As the conversation drifts to mundane topics, such as whether a local exercise class was canceled due to the attack, the two are adamant that any sort of change to the routine would be a show of weakness.

“We’re here forever, this is our home, we won’t be deterred, we won’t be moved,” Yael says.

On Agassi street in the heart of Har Nof, now home to “four widows, 24 orphans,” the street signs – as well as the people – call for a spiritual stocktaking. A poster outside the synagogue says that a special service with Yom Kippur liturgy will be held at the synagogue at 1 p.m., another announces a similar one at the Western Wall at 3 p.m.

A poster with a photo of a bloodied prayer shawl screams out “End the hatred!”

And outside the home of the bereaved Goldberg family, a sign asking reporters to respect the family’s privacy also notes: “The Goldberg family is accepting the divine decree with love.”

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