Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sirens Disrupt the Sabbath in Jerusalem

An article from the New York Times about how the tranquility of Shabbat last night in Jerusalem was disturbed by the air raid sirens going off, warning of the rockets launched at the city by Hamas.
When dusk descends on Jerusalem on a Friday, it usually brings a moment of rare harmony and almost magical tranquillity. A steady siren announces the onset of the Jewish Sabbath just hours after Muslims wind up the special Friday noon prayer at Al Aksa Mosque in the Old City. 
So this Friday, when a rising-and-falling wartime siren wailed out at twilight, followed by at least two dull thuds, many did not immediately grasp what was happening. 
In the 48 hours since Israel began its military operation in Gaza, militants’ rocket attacks have extended farther and farther north, starting in southern Israel and advancing to Kiryat Malachi, then to Rishon Lezion and off the shore of Tel Aviv. 
Throughout it all, residents of this disputed capital said they had felt largely immune from the battle by virtue of the city’s religious sites and its huge Palestinian population. Until they heard the siren blaring. 
“I thought, ‘Is that for Shabbat?’ ” said Judy Axelrod, a resident of West Jerusalem, a predominantly Jewish area. When she realized it was not, she walked off King David Street into the Y.M.C.A. for safety, even though most of those around her just carried on....
By firing at Jerusalem, about 48 miles from the Gaza border, Hamas had set a brazen precedent. The city was even off limits to Saddam Hussein, the fallen Iraqi leader, when he fired Scud missiles at Israel during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991. 
The military wing of Hamas boasted that it had aimed at the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament. In fact, the rockets fell short of the city. One landed in an open area near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem, and other explosions were heard in the same area.
The article then describes prayers at congregation Kol Haneshama in the Baka neighborhood. When I was in Israel this year, I often went to the Friday night services, which are usually attended by a large crowd and cultivate a very peaceful, contemplative atmosphere. There is a lot of singing and the service ends with a prayer for peace in Hebrew and Arabic. In the late 1980s, when I was a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman introduced this prayer into the service, at the height of the first intifada.
When the siren sounded, Levi Weiman-Kelman, an American-born rabbi, was preparing to lead Sabbath services at Congregation Kol Haneshama, where worshipers recite a special prayer for peace on Fridays in Hebrew and Arabic.

He described the mood in synagogue as “extremely tense and antsy.” Hoping the service would pass quietly, he said, “My prayers had an added intensity.”

About half the usual crowd turned up, but with the Israeli military poised for a ground operation and a massive call-up of reservists under way, there were more parents of soldiers than usual.

Across the invisible line that divides West Jerusalem from the contested eastern part of the city, there was anxiety, too.

Out in his car at night in the near-empty streets, Taisar Ahmad, a municipal worker from the Arab neighborhood of Jebel Mukaber, said that striking Jerusalem should be “forbidden.”

“It’s scary,” he added. “Everyone was frightened.”
When I heard that Hamas had launched rockets toward Jerusalem, I called a good friend in the city, who described going into the stairwell of her building, as people had been instructed to act when they heard the sirens. She sounded shaken up and wondered what would happen if a siren went off when she was at work - she works with children at a kindergarten with Jewish and Arab children.

May this war end soon!

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