ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Hanukkah theme of light shines hope for Florida Jews during Israel-Hamas war

Concerned over fate of Jewish state and rising antisemitism in US, local community finds unity and shared sense of purpose

A woman walks past a menorah standing outside a Jewish synagogue ahead of the start of Hanukkah, in Miami Beach, Florida, December 1, 2023. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)
A woman walks past a menorah standing outside a Jewish synagogue ahead of the start of Hanukkah, in Miami Beach, Florida, December 1, 2023. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

MIAMI BEACH, Florida — Preparing for Hanukkah — Judaism’s celebration of finding light in the darkness — feels uniquely somber yet defiant this year for the diverse Jewish community in Miami-area towns that many consider a welcoming home for their faith.

Even here, daily life for many Jews has been upended by the devastating October 7 attack on Israel when Hamas terrorists killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped some 240 to Gaza.

As a result, there’s a sense of dread in South Florida, but also a new sense of purpose for Holocaust survivors and new moms alike, regardless of their politics or religious observance, as they prepare for the holiday.

“I feel like we’re at war,” said Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, who started the Shul of Bal Harbour more than 40 years ago near the beach in Surfside. But he’s planning a bigger-than-usual menorah lighting for Hanukkah’s start this week.

“God didn’t put us in the world to be martyrs,” he said. “Every darkness is an opportunity to bring a bigger light.”

Some anti-Jewish covenants were still on the books when Lipskar arrived in this skinny barrier island near Miami. But by the late 1970s, the city of Miami Beach was predominantly Jewish, with dozens of synagogues, education centers, kosher stores and restaurants. It was so welcoming to Jews across the Americas and beyond that it became known as the Jewish Riviera.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and Rabbi Sholom Lipskar participate in a moment of silence, June 14, 2021, at The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Today the Dunkin’ on a central causeway only serves kosher, tourists in flashy swimwear frolic in the surf alongside observant young women in modest long skirts, and Hanukkah menorahs have gone up in public squares together with Christmas trees.

“It’s a comfort to me personally to be here,” said Julie Basner, a mother of three and a board member of Temple Beth Sholom, a large Reform congregation near an iconic Miami Beach mural that’s been covered with posters of the hostages taken by Hamas. “There’s no question, we’ve been united from the get-go.”

That closing of ranks within the Jewish community, plus the civic authorities’ support most visible in increased police patrols, has made Basner feel safe enough to put up a pro-Israel yard sign — though for the first few days, she kept checking whether it had been vandalized.

Her 15-year-old daughter, however, has wondered what to do if strangers ask if she’s Jewish.

Barby Harel, who helps run a weekly pizza gathering for teens at a local Chabad center, said the first question she was asked on a recent evening was, “Are we allowed to say we’re not Jewish?”

Out in the street in her head covering, pushing a stroller, Harel has found herself pondering who would take care of her baby if she were attacked — “or even if they don’t attack me, maybe they hate me.”

She empathizes with the parents who have been too afraid to send their girls to pizza night, where attendance dropped by half despite new armed security.

A Jewish man shows off the small gun he carries for protection, as he arrives at a synagogue for Shabbat service, in Miami Beach, Florida, December 1, 2023. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

“It’s incredible to have to hide who we are,” said David Wolf, the president of the Shul of Bal Harbour who has lived near it for 25 years. He’s been keeping posters of hostages in his home and will pray for them during Hanukkah.

He continues to wear his kippah — but has also started carrying his firearm.

Rabbis say many families are asking if it’s permissible to buy guns for protection, worried by antisemitic rhetoric and attacks globally as Israel faces intensifying criticism for the mounting Palestinian casualty toll. Israel has responded to the Hamas assault with a military campaign aimed destroying the terror group and toppling its regime in Gaza, as well as securing the release of the hostages held in Gaza.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says Israel’s military campaign has killed more than 16,000 people, most of them women and children. Those figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians, and people killed as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. Israel, while asserting its intention of avoiding harm to civilians, notes that Hamas has long embedded its military infrastructure in and near schools, mosques, hospitals and residences. The growing toll has prompted international calls for a ceasefire and numerous pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel demonstrations worldwide.

Parents started questioning if it was safe to send children to school and what to do in case of riots, said Rabbi Eliot Pearlson of Temple Menorah in Miami Beach, where he’s lived since the 1960s. As he sat in his office by an image of his father’s birthplace in Poland, where more than 100 relatives died after being forced into a ghetto or taken to a Nazi concentration camp, Pearlson’s phone pinged with messages from family hunkering in home bunkers in Israel, where Hamas has continued to barrage the country with rockets.

One Florida mother in a town across the bay has carved an improvised safe room in the empty space between walls in her house, stocked with food and water.

“It was the only thing that would make me feel safe,” said Galit Markovitcs Wiernik. She’s helped organize silent marches with empty strollers — symbolizing the children kidnapped by Hamas — and even though she’s secular, she said Hanukkah feels like “waiting for a miracle to happen.”

Other mothers in her group discussed how neighbors and co-workers they’d known for decades have recently made antisemitic remarks, heightening the sense of isolation most say they experience.

It’s the kind of foreboding they say feels unprecedented in their lifetime — except to Holocaust survivors.

Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz speaks during an empty Shabbat table event honoring those kidnapped by Hamas in Israel, at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, Florida, November 2, 2023. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

“I’ve been in pain,” said David Schaecter, 94, who spent nearly three years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, as tears welled up. “I’m reliving my past. For God’s sake, I can’t cope with it.”

Guarded by rooftop snipers, he and several other survivors gathered for a commemoration of Kristallnacht last month at Miami Beach’s Holocaust Memorial, which Schaecter helped found and where he volunteers to educate youth about the Nazis’ systematic killing of six million Jews.

Many young people miss the urgency of the phrase “never again,” said Dan Gelber, whose term as mayor of Miami Beach, where he grew up, ended a few weeks after the attacks.

Many across the Jewish community see Holocaust similarities in Hamas’s October 7 atrocities and they support the state of Israel as a necessary safeguard for all Jews that’s fighting an existential threat.

That’s why, while many say they pray for minimal further civilian casualties, most express dismay at the anti-Israel, sometimes overtly antisemitic, positions that have emerged, particularly on college campuses.

“I never was able to connect the dots between 1938 and 2023. I can now. I actually can, for the first time in my life, see, maybe it could happen here, maybe it could happen again,” said Jacob Solomon, president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, his voice breaking.

Holocaust survivor David Schaecter, 94, second right, poses for a picture with two young teens he educated about his first hand experience of the Holocaust during an event commemorating Kristallnacht, the 1938 government-backed pogroms against Jews in Germany and Austria, at the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, Florida, November 5, 2023. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

With its emphasis on God’s light miraculously sustained even in the depth of darkness, the message of Hanukkah feels especially timely among such grief and worry.

“As Jews, we’re oriented toward hope. No matter how dark things seem, we can find light,” said Gayle Pomerantz, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom.

For its Shabbat service during Hanukkah, the congregation plans to host the eight Miami Beach firefighters — only one of them Jewish — who spent two weeks in Israel relieving firefighters who had been called up to serve in its armed forces.

Already, many are finding comfort in how the local Jewish community has united, overcoming political and religious differences that had driven a wedge among American Jews recently.

“Day and night, every chat, every post was, ‘What can we do?'” said Johana Abraham, president of the Shul Sisterhood. Volunteers, once hard to find, have been packing donations, gathering daily to recite psalms and fundraising for Israel — “coming together like you would for your family.”

Across the community, some have started wearing jewelry in the shape of stars of David or kippahs as visible signs of their Jewish identity.

Pedestrians walk past a building displaying pictures of people taken hostage in Israel by Hamas terrorists on October 7, in Miami Beach, Florida, December 1, 2023. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

Many feel that having a joyful Hanukkah is another way to show defiance to terror — even though most will include in their family celebration somber prayers for the hostages still held by Hamas.

“This is no time to hide,” Abraham said. “I’m not afraid because I’m going to stand up for who I am. We’re still in America.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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