The seats were empty and occupied at once, a harrowing paradox of the times.
In the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on Israel, Rabbi Sanford Akelsrad of Henderson’s Congregation Ner Tamid laminated posters of the hostages taken by Hamas and arranged them in chairs in his synagogue’s sanctuary.
It was a way of acknowledging the abducted who — unlike those gathered here — couldn’t be with their family and loved ones to partake in their faith together.
The first service that Akelsrad led afterward was a bat mitzvah.
“Here I am in Las Vegas, celebrating the coming-of-age of a young, 13-year-old girl, and all the happiness that goes with it, while I look at these empty seats of people who we don’t know whether they will live or die, simply because they are Jews,” recalls Akelrad, one of Vegas’ longest-tenured rabbis, having served here since 1988. “What kind of world am I bequeathing to her? What kind of destiny does she have as a Jew?”
These are the types of tough questions that Jewish spiritual leaders have been wrangling with for nearly two months, navigating a tightrope of sadness and resiliency as they continue to lead their congregations while war rages on in Israel, the homeland for many of them.
There are no easy answers.
“To tell her to be strong, I tell myself to be strong,” Akelsrad continues. “And in so doing, every time we do something — a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a baby-naming, whatever it might be — even though there’s a shadow of some guilt because of what’s going on in the Middle East, there is also a determination to carry on and celebrate who we are.”
For rabbis around the Las Vegas Valley, who are expected to serve as sources of strength, support and understanding during times of crisis, recent weeks have been among the most demanding and heart-wringing they’ve ever faced.
“It’s been pretty intense,” acknowledges Rabbi Nachum Meth of the Community Kollel of Greater Las Vegas. “For example, the first Shabbat that we had that was after the massacre, it was one of the most emotional Shabbats I’ve ever been a part of.”
“You’re in somewhat of a daze,” adds Rabbi Bradley Tecktiel of Henderson’s Midbar Kodesh Temple. “It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster, especially the last week, with the hostages finally being released. But throughout the first couple of weeks, it was very difficult.”
With Hanukkah starting this Thursday at sundown, there will be still more complex emotions to process, as the Jewish community attempts to balance traditional seasonal cheer with the horrific toll of an ongoing conflict.
How will it impact the holiday?
Akelsrad considers the question.
“How could it not?”
‘I’m grieving, too’
Normally, it’s a time for him to catch his breath — and then that breath was knocked out of him.
Hamas’ assault on Israel happened during the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, which took place on October 6th and 7th respectively this year, marking the end of the Jewish high holiday season.
“Typically, as a rabbi, after that holiday comes, it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, now we can exhale, because the weeks leading up to the high holidays and the holiday season is a very intense time,” Meth explains. “But we didn’t have that opportunity. We went straight from the high holidays to this very painful and powerful last few weeks and this last month.”
When Rabbi Ilana Baden of Las Vegas’ Temple Sinai first learned of the horrors of October 7th, she broke tradition and penned a letter to her congregation, even though it was Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
“I think this was critical enough that we had to let the congregation know that we’re here for them,” she says. “So I wrote a note to let them know that as things unfolded, we would be here to support anyone who needed it”
The services that followed the next week were particularly emotionally charged.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a joyous experience,” she recalls. “But I would say those early services, they were cathartic. We needed them. We needed a place where we could safely cry, and be angry, and be scared — and then remind ourselves that we are people who have experienced a lot of persecution. We have Holocaust survivors that witnessed atrocities I can’t even imagine. But we never thought in this modern age that we would see such savagery.”
While rabbis are counted on by their congregation for spiritual leadership and guidance during the most trying of times, they’re also faced with the difficult task of being there for others while attempting to work through their own emotions.
Even in the face of a shocking inhumanity, they’re still human, after all.
“I think only now I’m getting into processing (the attacks),” says Rabbi Shai Specht-Sandler, “because at the beginning, I just went into rabbi-mode, answering questions, keeping those weddings, bar mitzvahs and events going, and really not giving myself a lot of time.
“A friend who’s a therapist said, ‘Alright, you’ve got to at least maybe speak to someone because you need an outlet as well, which I did,” he continues. “And that really helped. Often, people didn’t even ask, ‘Are you okay?’”
For Baden, the key to managing her feelings is acknowledging them.
“I’m very honest that I’m grieving, too,” she says. “I share these emotions, and hold them with the community. I also believe that being strong isn’t always necessarily translated as showing strength. It can also be vulnerability — and empathy.”
On darkness…and light
“You’re a hypocrite and a liar.”
Rabbi Tecktiel plays a voicemail from an unidentified caller that he received just the day before — and the voice on the other end is grim and taunting, his words barbed and bile-filled.
“You’re absolute scum,” the caller continues during a minute-long rant. “That’s all you’ll ever be.”
Rabbi Meth has also been the target of Jewish slurs yelled by passersby outside his temple.
Rabbi Shai says that he’s experienced similar abuse as well.
“I constantly get death threats on social media,” he notes with palpable dismay. “Every post that I post, there’s nasty things that people say, so you’re dealing with, on the one hand , a lot of people coming to you for help and reassurance. And then on the other hand, a lot of other people just basically saying you should die.”
Among the many things that rabbis are contending with currently is a rise in antisemitism.
At Congregation Ner Tamid, they’ve hired security guards.
“Did I ever think that was going to happen?” Akelsrad asks. “Not to the extent that it has happened, not to the extent that the community needed that reassurance that when they come and send their kids to school or pre-school, or if they attended religious services, there wouldn’t be that layer of protection for them as Jews living in Las Vegas.”
All of this adds a timely — albeit ugly — dimension to the upcoming Hanukkah season, a holiday posited upon the Jewish people overcoming their Greek oppressors over 2,000 years ago.
“Hanukkah celebrates light, celebrates a period of darkness and then being free from that darkness,” Shai explains. “And so I think Hanukkah this year, really is going to represent coming out of darkness and into the light — and another battle of just living as human beings and being free.”
For Akelsrad, there are echoes between the origins of Hanukkah and what it represents today, in a year where a painful past has reverberated into the present.
“Hanukkah is a celebration of the first fight for religious freedom in recorded history,” he says. “It’s a reminder of the oppression of our people, and the desire to maintain our values against all odds.
“The Hanukkah menorah, therefore, has become a symbol of hope,” he continues. “In that sense, when we light our Hanukkah menorah this year, we do so as an affirmation of our history and our commitment to hope — a hope that our values will endure, and that peace will soon be upon us all.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram