Gil Hoffman watched the rabbis dancing, just days removed from a dangerous flight from their homes in Ukraine to cross the Moldovan border.
The song the rabbis were singing was one of being happy on holiday, Hoffman said, though he was sure the Jewish people around him were not on the eve of a Jewish holiday. He asked them why there singing such a happy song after such heartbreak.
"These rabbis were trying to push God into giving them the joy amidst all their tragedy, showing tremendous faith," Hoffman said.
Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for Jerusalem Post, visited the Moldova-Ukraine border in the early weeks of Russia's attack on Ukraine. There on a reporting trip, he met refugees coming across the border, uncertain of their future. There were rabbis who moved their communities to safety, then took the Torah scrolls with them across the border. There were women and children praying for men at home, he said.
"They told stories about driving for a few hours, hitting a traffic jam and just leaving their car there and walking for several hours," Hoffman said. "We're talking about women with little kids. Little girls with pink backpacks, walked in the rain and snow and freezing cold and mud after leaving behind their father, their husband to fight in the war. Never knowing if they will see him ever again. Leaving behind their home, not knowing if they'll ever come back to it."
Hoffman told stories of reporting from Eastern Europe during an hourlong lecture at the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga on Monday. His talk covered a wide range of topics beyond the ongoing war in Ukraine, from Israeli politics to the Iran nuclear deal to COVID-19.
He praised the work of Israel for being forward-thinking in its response to the pandemic.
"We were the first country to vaccinate, and the first country to realize when the vaccines were waning and that we had to start giving them again," Hoffman told the crowd. "And we were the first country, I think, that showed the world how the pandemic could be defeated with the spirit of Israelis who know how to deal with crisis. We've had to deal with so many crises before, and we overcome them with discipline and with unity."
The political reporter made jokes about the state of Israeli politics — the four elections the country faced in two years to help determine the country's next prime minister — and the unlikely coalition government that formed behind Naftali Bennett in 2021. Hoffman likened the coalition to supporters of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., teamed up with supporters of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Hoffman underlined the importance of bipartisan support for Israel among American politicians, calling the country "the one issue" that brings the parties together, though there is some concern the next generation of Democratic leaders will not be as supportive of the Middle Eastern nation.
In sharing stories from reporting on the ongoing war in Ukraine, Hoffman praised the generosity of the Moldovan people and various aid groups, offering free meals, housing and taxi rides for people crossing the border.
Michael Dzik, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, said the Jewish Federations of North America had raised more than $40 million in aid for Ukraine, with about $40,000 of that coming from Chattanooga.
In an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press after the lecture, Hoffman said he was deeply grateful for the opportunity to report on the war and the refugee crisis.
"I cover politics. I'm cynical, I'm sarcastic," he told the Times Free Press. "And I've become less. I really believe that. I mean, I know. My faith has been strong all along, but I definitely feel that I gained perspective and learned what matters in life. And I came home and I hugged my kids and my wife even more."