After week of horror, prayers for peace

As 5 p.m. drew near, more and more people arrived at Temple Israel of Riverhead Sunday to seek comfort in the company of friends, to express their sadness and horror over the terror attacks in southern Israel and to draw strength from their faith. 

Soon, the temple was filled with both its own members and dozens from other congregations in the region, as well as clergy from a number of area churches who came to show support during a prayer vigil for Israel.

The vigil was the idea of Barbara Sheryll, a rabbi and a trustee of North Fork Reform Synagogue in Cutchogue. She wanted to bring people together in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 terror assault on Jewish communities in southern Israel, during which hundreds — including babies — were massacred and nearly 200 were taken hostage and carried into neighboring Gaza.

“We are horrified by what has happened in Israel,” Ms. Sheryll said before the vigil began. Asked how she was feeling as people filed in for the service, she said, “Shock. Sadness, and a strong desire to stand with the Jewish community and Israel.”

When asked why he wanted to attend the vigil, the Rev. Peter Kelley, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Southold, put it simply: “To be with my siblings in faith at this heartbreaking time.”

The Northville Turnpike temple has served the area’s Jewish community for a century. Its members, and those belonging to other temples in the region, have joined together previously in other crises that have marked the Jewish community. 

Sunday evening’s vigil seemed to take on far greater importance, as the war between Israel and Hamas has expanded, with threats also growing from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Those in attendance said they wanted to be together, to seek solace in each other’s presence.

Doug Sherter of Manorville, who grew up in Hampton Bays and received his bar mitzvah at the Riverhead temple 45 years ago, said he felt compelled to attend. 

“There is just so much hatred,” he said. “It has to end. For Jews in the United States, we need to meet and comfort each other and show resolve.”

As Temple Israel’s rabbi, Michael Rascoe, watched people take their seats, he told a reporter the shock of the murders of Oct. 7 have been impossible for him to grasp. 

“The horror that human beings can do this to other human beings — that has been hard for all of us,” he said. “Tonight is to bring people together, to take the opportunity to talk and comfort each other.”

During the vigil, songs were sung in Hebrew and in English and there were readings from different speakers. Among those who stepped to the podium was Father Bohdan Hedz of nearby St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church. He and members of his congregation know something about war and suffering. 

His church is the heart and soul of the region’s Ukrainian community and has been the focal point for local relief efforts for war-torn communities in Ukraine. He read a prayer, “El Maleh Rachamim,” that began: “Compassionate God. We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred. Not to destroy sinners, but to lessen sin. Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one. Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks.” 

As the service ended, Rabbi Rascoe thanked everyone for coming. “Something happened that defies human understanding,” he said. “We wanted to be together to express that. I welcome all of you.”