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‘This touches everybody’: As war rages, local rabbis focus on safety and solidarity

Offering comfort, support, and a secure place to worship, Jewish religious leaders in Massachusetts are trying to keep community members safe in both body and spirit

Rabbi Noah Cheses of Young Israel synagogue in Sharon spoke at a community rally after the war began.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

On Thursday, Rabbi Richard Perlman will say two prayers with his congregation at the Temple Ner Tamid of the North Shore in West Peabody: a prayer for Israel, as the war with Hamas enters its sixth day, and a prayer of mourning.

He will offer the same prayers the day after that, and the day after that, until the war ends, he said. At which point the congregation can finally begin to pray, every day, for peace.

“The past few days have been outrageously stressful for us, especially our congregants who have family who live in Israel,” he said. “This touches home. This touches everybody.”


For rabbis and other Jewish leaders across Massachusetts, the first days of the war in the Middle East present a complex challenge: guiding a grieving community through a period of fear and turbulence while staying vigilant against threats of antisemitic action that could rear up locally.

“There are lots of people who worry a lot, who want us to create Fort Knox here,” said Noah Cheses, a rabbi at the Young Israel synagogue in Sharon. “I’m a firm believer that we need to lean into our relationships with our neighbors, with town leadership. Those relationships are what provide security.”

Local police departments and the Boston office of the FBI confirmed there have not been any reported “specific or credible threats” of antisemitic behavior in Massachusetts since Hamas militants attacked Israel on Saturday, though officials said they are continuing to monitor places of worship and other Jewish community centers. A spokesperson for the FBI added that agents are “tracking closely the events in the Middle East” and encouraged residents and religious leaders to report any suspicious or threatening activity.

Cheses said a sense of community is more important now than ever. The Sharon synagogue — which already has a volunteer security force and police detail — will not add any additional protection, but Cheses said Sharon’s Jewish community will seek out its neighbors for support.


For example, fourth- and fifth-graders, who are members of the synagogue, gathered there earlier this week to make a pasta dinner for their neighbors. They charged friends and family $3 and plan to send the money to active-duty Israeli Defense soldiers who have ties to the synagogue through friends or relatives, , according to Cheses.

“We’ve witnessed inhumanity, and the best antidote to that is to be nurtured by the best of humanity,” he said.

Perlman, the rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid, also serves with the Peabody Police Department and State Police as a chaplain, where he learned critical incident stress management skills and works on a team that helps first responders process catastrophic events through conversation. Perlman said he plans to implement some of the same strategies with congregation members.

Many temples, Jewish schools, and cultural centers already have security measures in place, largely in response to previous hate crimes and antisemitic acts in recent years. Temple Beth Zion in Brookline received a bomb threat in August, and multiple acts of arson were reported at Chabad centers in Needham and Arlington in 2019.

“There have been very serious incidents even in this area . . . so we want to make sure we’re not creating more fear, but rather empowering people to be proactive instead of reactive to a [potential] problem,” said Jeremy Yamin, the security and operations vice president for Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which has worked to develop safety plans for numerous Jewish centers in the state.


Yamin stressed that the best precaution local leaders can take is to mobilize the existing security available in their building or around their community.

“Verify that panic button, that alarm system, those radios work. Does everyone know where the first aid kit is?” Yamin said. “Request enhanced protection, inform the police department of when your Shabbat service hours are . . . so that even if they can’t post someone at your door, they can increase drive-by visits or stop-ins.”

A Police Department spokesperson in Cambridge, where supporters of both Palestinians and Israel gathered Monday to demonstrate, said the department has “directed patrols for all faith-based centers in the city,” with officers canvassing the area and staying in touch with local faith leaders.

In Newton, police are also conducting “strategic security checks,” according to a spokesperson for the department, who added that discussions are ongoing with religious and community leaders about “enhanced security measures” moving forward.

Rabbi Laura Abrasley of Temple Shalom in Newton said the clergy is focusing on togetherness and support. She said the temple aims to create a space for student reflection and help parents navigate discussion of war with their children.

“We don’t have any more answers than anyone else right now, other than to just hold each other,” she said.


Abrasley hosted a gathering Wednesday evening for parents to speak with mental health professionals from Riverside Community Care, a mental health counseling center in Newton. On Friday, the clergy will focus its weekly service on hope and comfort, Abrasley said.

She added that many members of Temple Shalom are tied to Israel via family or friendship and are worrying about the safety of loved ones. While the conflict is far away, Abrasley said the Jewish community is tight-knit and deeply connected across the world.

“People are really feeling it,” she said. “It feels very close.”

Nationally, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has published several resources to support rabbis and other Jewish community leaders across the country in developing safety plans for their places of worship. Barry Mael, the organization’s senior director of synagogue operations, said the guidance for synagogues and temples is essentially the same across the board: “Don’t be lax. Now is not the time to be winging it.”

“Most places nowadays don’t keep multiple doors open, so make sure there’s someone stationed by that one door. And be in touch with local law enforcement, especially for outdoor events,” he said. “That up-to-date contact is the main thing that’s encouraged, whether you’re in a small place or in a large city.”

In Canton at the B’nai Tikvah synagogue, Rabbi Lisa Feld said she was grateful to receive a visit Tuesday from the local police chief, who “stopped by just to see how we were doing, and if there’s anything we needed.”


Feld said congregants were somewhat dispirited during last weekend’s services, but that “people needed to get away from the news and from their fears for a few minutes, and they were really grateful for that.”

On college campuses, too, security and support for students have both increased in recent days. Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, the executive director of Hillel at Northeastern University, said the Jewish student life center stayed open for hours over the long weekend while students spent time “processing together, holding each other, offering prayers, or just sitting there.”

Every time a student is in the center, Paasche-Orlow said, a Northeastern police detail is posted outside.

“When there’s hate out there, there’s the possibility of violent acts, so we have to be vigilant,” she said.

Paasche-Orlow said she plans to continue to keep the center open late for as long as students need, adding that her priority is to provide long-lasting support throughout a conflict with an indeterminable end.

“It can feel very alienating when war has touched your life, and those around you are going along as if nothing happened, or are not understanding how something happening halfway around the world can impact you so deeply,” she said. “So we are setting the stage to continue to support and be here for our students because this will be going on for a while, and we want them to know they don’t have to struggle alone.”

Ivy Scott can be reached at Follow her @itsivyscott. Vivi Smilgius can be reached at Follow her @viviraye.