‘Shattered hearts’: Sadness and anger as Chattanoogans rally for Israel

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Michael Dzik, Executive Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, speaks to the room. As war breaks out between Israel and Hamas, the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga hosted a public rally to support Israel at the Jewish Cultural Center on Monday, October 9, 2023.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Michael Dzik, Executive Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, speaks to the room. As war breaks out between Israel and Hamas, the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga hosted a public rally to support Israel at the Jewish Cultural Center on Monday, October 9, 2023.

Ofer Musan arrived just more than a week ago to be the new Israeli cultural emissary for the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, and he was planning a Monday night get-to-know-you talk for the community. Late Friday, plans changed.

He'd gone to bed following an event at a synagogue, only to be awoken when his phone exploded with messages.

Musan checked Israeli news sites. In the coming hours he would learn militants with Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, had launched a surprise attack. Towns and even an all-night music festival near the border were under attack.

So far, more than 800 Israelis have been killed and still more kidnapped as hostages. Israel has declared and mobilized for war and the death toll in Gaza is rising amid a bombardment, according to several news reports.

And instead of Musan's talk, postponed for another day, the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, like many groups around the U.S., held a public rally of solidarity with the Israeli people at its Jewish Cultural Center in Brainerd on Monday evening.

(READ MORE: Israeli and Palestinian supporters rally across U.S. as Israel declares war after Hamas attack)

About 150 people, and more on a video call, streamed into the center at dusk. With an Israeli flag projected behind him, Michael Dzik, the Jewish federation's executive director, came to the stand.

"We have witnessed the worst act of terror on the state of Israel and its citizens," he said. "Let's put this into perspective. Not since the Holocaust has this large a number of Jews been killed in a single day."

Rabbi Craig Lewis of Mizpah Congregation followed and said he felt two core things. The first, he said, was sadness. He reflected on the Israelis he's met -- a lively Tel Aviv cab driver, a family with whom he shared Shabbat dinners -- and those he had simply seen -- strangers on the streets, tour guides, restaurant servers, lifeguards, police officers, teachers.

"And I know among all of those people there are so many shattered hearts," Lewis said. "I don't know what to say."

The other thing he said he felt was anger.

"I am by nature a peacenik, favoring the dove over the hawk," he said. "Sometimes it's time to be the hawk."

Still, he said Jews think in terms of not just years but generations.

"We make an outward showing that the Jewish homeland matters, even for we who live a half a world away. Israel is more than a country. Israel is our family. It's an integral part of who we are as Jews."

Rabbi Shaul Perlstein from Chabad of Chattanooga told the crowd that Jews' survival through the generations results from their connection to God.

"We don't respond with words," he said. "We respond with action. We respond by strengthening our spiritual connections, by engaging in acts of goodness and kindness."

'On the ground'

In a phone interview Monday morning, Dzik said Israel is in a very difficult situation, that he doesn't want to see innocent civilians hurt, and he worries for what is to come as Israel moves to defend itself.

"Jews around the world are going to remember this moment," Dzik said. "I think this is a transformative moment. I think it's going to change things on the ground in Israel."

For Musan, checking his messages Friday night in Chattanooga, the news got more disturbing by the hour. Initially, occasioned by rocket fire, the messages asked if everyone was OK. Then the videos started pouring in from Southern Israel, near Gaza, where he said he has extended family on both sides: Hamas group here, Hamas group there.

His uncle, he said, lives so close to Gaza that if there is a siren, he has ten seconds to get to a bomb shelter. The uncle sent messages, Musan recalled, stating Hamas militants were near.

Then Musan got another message from his mother. His cousin's house, he learned, had been hit by a missile -- though the family wasn't there.

"So they're OK," Musan said, "but they probably have nowhere to go back to."

Then he saw a disturbing story from a friend: A mutual friend was missing; he'd been at the music festival. On Sunday, Musan got an update. The friend's body had been found. Since then, Musan said, he hasn't been able to do anything.

"I was just sitting at home crying, talking to my mother, talking to my friends," Musan said. "I really wanted to go to his funeral, but I can't because I'm here."

He said he feels like he has a 100-kilogram weight on him. He knows friends are being called up to fight. He suspects Israel's military mobilization -- one speaker at Monday's event noted that the 300,000 reservists Israel has said it is calling up represents the per capita equivalent of more than 10 million Americans -- reflects an intention to invade Gaza.

"Which means" -- Musan paused. He said he wasn't sure what it meant, but that it didn't mean anything good.

Family worries

The gloom has been cut with moments of banal relief. On Monday morning, he told the crowd, he missed several calls from his sister. Finding the notifications on his phone left him worried.

"And then I called her back, and she was really happy to hear me and she said, 'Ofer, what's the Netflix password?' And I was like, 'Well, I don't remember it,'" he said, and he left the stage to laughs and a standing ovation.

Still, in the interview the afternoon before the event, Musan said he is preoccupied thinking about his parents, on an upper floor of an apartment building that -- as an older structure -- only has bomb shelters several stories down.

If a missile was en route, they would have less than two minutes to get to the shelter, but they are not physically capable of that, he said. His father had served on the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago.

"Today was the first time I've ever heard my father crying for who knows how long," Musan said.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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