Jewish and Muslim faith leaders grapple with how to support congregants

Some have congregants who have lost relatives in the war
Muslim and Jewish religious leaders have personal struggles during the Israel-Hamas war. (Photo compilation / Associated Press)

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Muslim and Jewish religious leaders have personal struggles during the Israel-Hamas war. (Photo compilation / Associated Press)

Roughly two weeks into the start of a war that has claimed the lives of thousands of people across Israel and Gaza, waves of pain keep washing over Atlantans, especially those with personal connections to the region.

Israeli and Jewish communities have united in sorrow. Palestinian-American residents are rattled and anxious.

At the forefront of that pain are the metro area’s religious leaders, many of whom must process their own, personal trauma while simultaneously working to assuage the grief of distraught congregations. During times of tragedy, they may be on the receiving end of questions that are varied and probing.

Some people may turn toward their faith, while others question it: Why would God allow this to happen? How do I find inner peace when horrible things happen in the world? Why does God let innocent people suffer? Why is there so much hate and anger? How do I cope?

“We’re all finding it challenging both to pastor to others in their time of crisis while we ourselves are internally struggling,” said Rabbi Daniel Dorsch, president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.

When he first got news of the militant group Hamas’ brutal assault on Israel on Oct. 7 — the country’s deadliest day in 50 years — he felt concern for congregants who were traveling there at the time, as well as for congregants who have relatives in Israel. He also thought about loved ones of his own.

Dorsch’s in-laws live in Israel. His best friend resides in a small town outside of Tel Aviv, in a neighborhood that was targeted by Hamas rockets. “Everybody in that small town knows someone who was killed and certainly their children have all been called up for reserve duty. It is affecting everybody,” he said. “It’s been challenging, I think, to be a rabbi or a spiritual leader this week.”

Daniel Dorsch (Courtesy of Congregation Etz Chaim)

Credit: Congregation Etz Chaim

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Credit: Congregation Etz Chaim

Imam Bashir Mundi of the Masjid Al-Furqan in Cobb County said he has experienced feelings of trauma, sadness and pain over the destruction and loss of lives. “Scripture in the Quran, as well as the Torah, say to kill one person is to kill all of humanity,“ Mundi said.

His congregation includes some people who are from or have relatives in Gaza and the West Bank. Some of the mosque’s congregants are still in the area where Israeli air strikes are taking place.

”It comes home to us, really,” he said. Mundi has offered encouragement and the mosque has held collective prayers.

Some congregants are confused or question how to deal with the loss. He said he has been reassuring them that everything that happens is “in the grand design of God. Whatever happens, pain or job, are all tests of God. This is a tremendous test.”

The Gaza Health Ministry said more than 4,100 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Associated Press. That includes the disputed number of victims of the hospital explosion.

More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, mostly civilians slain during Hamas’ deadly incursion. Israel says 203 people were taken hostage into Gaza.

Imam Arshad Anwar of Masjid Jafar in Johns Creek is certain that the death toll among Palestinians will rise.

Imam Arshad Anwar of Masjid Jafar in Johns Creek.  (Contributed)

Credit: Contribute

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Credit: Contribute

He said a ground battle “will lead to the expulsion of Palestinians from what is left of their lands in Gaza, sadly. That would be achieved by death and destruction.”

In times of turmoil and tragedy, people view faith leaders as representatives of “that which is pure and good in the universe,” said Robert M. Franklin Jr., the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. That’s especially important when people’s world “has been broken up and violently fragmented. “They want someone to help them put the pieces back together. Religious leaders are the connectors in our lives, They connect us to God, they connect us to other people and, ultimately, our our truer self.”

Rabbi Mark Zimmerman leads the Congregation Beth Shalom. He said consoling people in times of pain “comes with the territory, but this is on a whole other level.”

He added: “There’s a lot of fear, and that makes it very different. It’s scary. The community is definitely shaken. … I think we felt the barbarity of this [attack].”

Like many of his congregants, Zimmerman has family in Israel: his 35-year-old son.

In the face of that trauma, Zimmerman says he is “doing the best I can to give people hope and confidence and consolation.” What he tries to project, he explained, is a feeling that the community is unified.

According to Rabbi Jason Holtz, a sense of community is precisely what folks are most in need of at this time, and that’s what he works to provide at Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell.

“I’ve seen a lot of people just come to the synagogue just to be with other people,” he said. “I’m just trying to create a space for people to come to so that whatever it is that they’re feeling, they don’t have to be alone when they’re feeling it. If people want to talk or if people want to pray, there’s a space to do that.”

And it doesn’t make any pain go away, he added. “But the goal is not to make the pain go away. It’s to provide a community for people to experience [the pain] within.”

At services, Holtz can feel the toll that the Hamas’ assault is taking. Congregants are not only distressed about what took place in Israel, but also increasingly worried about their safety in Georgia and across the U.S.

“We can’t help but be a little scared and be a little worried about what this means for the future,” he said. “A lot of people are wondering, how safe is it to be Jewish?”

Some in the Muslim community didn’t want to be interviewed because of similar concerns for their own safety.

Anwar of Masjid Jafar in Johns Creek is not of Palestinian heritage, but the mosque, which serves between 400 and 500 people, has a sizeable number of members who are.

There are congregants with families in Gaza who have lost relatives in the airstrikes or have loved ones who have been injured. “It’s pretty horrifying,” Anwar said. “For all of us, something like this, the entire community pulls together to support each other, keep the community informed and make sure the community is safe.”

He said that people are suffering right now.

There are special prayers that are included every night. They ask God for “help and support and to give His mercy and ease the pain.”

One concern is about how people outside view the entire war.

In the mosque, “there is huge frustration. It seems like there’s one-sided portrayal. It’s really hurtful. People have friends and community members who have lost families, who have lost businesses, who have lost land. It’s a very painful time.”

Throughout the pain and suffering, he said, “it’s really inspiring to see how people come back to prayer and find reliance on God.”

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