On Sunday evening, some 50 people filed into Temple Israel in Riverhead. They were quiet, whispering solemn greetings to each other. There was no joy among the people who came. The mood was somber.
They had come to the synagogue on Northville Turnpike for a prayer vigil in support of the state of Israel. They were members of that congregation and members of other temples across the region, including North Fork Reform Synagogue, which meets at Cutchogue Presbyterian Church.
The dual use of that historic church, which dates to 1732, is a metaphor for people of different faith communities sharing a common space for the good of each other. That speaks volumes about the kind of place we live in, and want to live in, as political tensions rage in America and wars rage in Ukraine and now in Israel and Gaza.
The murderous rampage that erupted in southern Israel on Oct. 7 was on everyone’s mind. Several people who spoke before the vigil began said Israel was right to seek revenge on Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli bombing of Gaza, home to more than 2 million Palestinians, was so heavy that by Sunday night an estimated 6,000 bombs had been dropped and parts of the territory were entirely leveled.
The violence was not far from anyone’s mind. But the theme of coming together for a common purpose was evident Sunday evening, when Jews and others of different faiths held their vigil. There were Protestant ministers in attendance, including Pastor Richie King of Cutchogue Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. Peter Kelley of Southold’s First Presbyterian Church.
The Rev. Kelley perfectly summed up why he was there: “To be with my siblings in faith at a heartbreaking time.”
Perhaps the most dramatic moment came when Father Bohdan Hedz of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church took the podium to read a prayer.
Here is a Ukrainian priest, who represents a community of Ukrainians across the region, many of whom have fled the war in their homeland, who came to a synagogue to pray for peace in another country. Two lines of history, two countries at war, joined together on a Sunday evening in Riverhead.
Among themselves, the participants talked in hushed tones about the horrific events of Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists murdered hundreds in southern Israel. The follow up to that massacre has been a massive Israeli bombardment of Gaza that has killed thousands, including hundreds of children.
And it would only get far, far worse. Two days after the vigil, the news from Gaza was of mass deaths. On Tuesday, the Gaza Health Ministry reported a hospital in Gaza City had been bombed, killing hundreds. Palestinians blamed Israel for the bombing. Israeli officials said they did not bomb the hospital and pinned the blame on a failed Hamas rocket launch. What is indisputable is this: Hundreds are dead.
Some of those present Sunday had difficulty talking about the murders in Israel, as if finding the right words to describe the horror was impossible, unable to sum up their feelings about the deaths of babies and the taking of hundreds of hostages across the border into Gaza. There were no proper words; it was impossible. News reports show Palestinians in Gaza also can’t find the words to describe the horror they are experiencing.
We stood for a few minutes with Rabbi Michael Rascoe before the service began. Asked how he was feeling, he groped for a way to express it, speaking of the “horror that one human being can do to another human being.”
We were glad to attend this vigil, where we saw people who have every reason to grieve and feel hopeless in this moment instead speak of hope and peace. We were reminded of the Amos Oz novel, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” about his growing up in Jerusalem.
For a brief moment in Riverhead, a vigil for Israel was a powerful expression of light in at time of darkness. Tragically, the 2 million residents of Gaza are living in darkness.