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ocal Jewish, Palestinian communities weigh in on Israel-Hamas war 6-month mark

04/09/2024 10:26:21 AM


Rabbi SpectorCongregation Kol Ami Sign and Flags

SALT LAKE CITY — Sunday marked six months since the surprise attack carried out by Hamas on Israel.

Hamas-led militants killed more than 1,100 people in the Oct. 7 attack. 250 people were also kidnapped, according to the Associated Press.

Currently, 134 people, most of whom are Israelis, are still being held captive.

"The past six months have been very challenging for a lot of people," said Rabbi Sam Spector with Congregation Kol Ami.

In November, Spector made a trip to Israel to see the devastation of the conflict firsthand.

"I talked to a gentleman whose wife and son were murdered in his arms, and he survived but lost his leg," he said.

Spector says they've had to make several security upgrades to his Salt Lake City synagogue. This comes after they received a bomb threat on Oct. 8 and several threatening phone calls and e-mails in the months that followed.

"Couple weeks before Oct. 7, we installed about 20 security cameras and we're going to be installing another 20 on our property," he said. "We also put into place flagpoles in front of our building to prevent people from driving at congregants on the sidewalk. We have had to have police presence nearly daily since Oct. 7."

Spector said they spend a couple thousand dollars a week to have a police presence outside his synagogue. Money raised by the congregation itself is used to fund that.

He also spoke about the impact the war is having, not just on the Jewish community.

"I think it's very challenging and troubling to see the difficult situation of the Palestinian people, and our hearts break for innocent civilians who are caught in the crossfire of this war," he said.

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Salt Lake City Council ends meeting early under disruptions by Gaza ceasefire supporters 

02/23/2024 10:20:57 AM


Josi Hinds, Washington Square Dispatch

In a more than four-hour-long Salt Lake City Council meeting Tuesday night, the Council passed a ceremonial resolution for peace that was later met with criticism from constituents during the general comments portion of the meeting. A group of roughly 60 people demanded the Council pass a ceasefire-specific resolution regarding the conflict in Gaza. A handful of Jewish constituents spoke in support of the peace resolution.

During the opening of Tuesday’s meeting, members of the Council took turns reading from a ceremonial resolution for peace, passed jointly with the administration of Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

“We reaffirm our commitment to remaining in and engaging in conversations to further our commitment to make Salt Lake City safe for everyone,” Councilmember Alejandro Puy said. He thanked stakeholders and those who worked behind the scenes to shape the resolution’s language.

The resolution condemns both anti-Palestinian and anti-Israeli rhetoric, supports Salt Lake City residents advocating for peace, urges federal leaders to work towards peace in the Middle East and emphasizes the city’s responsibility to protect local communities. But later in the meeting, constituents who for the last two months have called on the City Council to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza conflict criticized this resolution as insufficient.

"Thank you for taking the first step in passing the resolution, though it's clear it only meant to appease us,” Ryeleigh Hewlitt said to the Council. "We will be relentless until you do the bare minimum and pass a permanent ceasefire.”

Hewlitt led a chant before leaving the podium, shouting “no justice” with the response “no peace” from members of the audience. Puy reminded attendees to maintain decorum and keep their expressions to themselves.

"To make sure that everybody feels safe and welcome in this room and this space, I would like to emphasize the importance of maintaining a respectful and orderly forum where everyone can participate,” Puy said.

In addition to comments calling for a ceasefire resolution, the Council heard from several Jewish constituents who were happy with the resolution for peace that had already passed.

"Thank you so much for your resolution today because it focuses on the citizens of Salt Lake City,” Rabbi Sam Spector told the Council.

Rabbi Spector acknowledged Israel’s violence towards Palestinians but also said that hearing phrases like “from the river to the sea” or referring to Israel as “is not real” from Palestinian supporters is damaging.

“It seems that advocating for the Palestinians only goes hand in hand with the demonization of Israel.” Rabbi Spector said.

Public comments were often met with applause or snaps from members of the audience, prompting Puy to issue several reminders that expressions of support or disagreement are not allowed.

A commenter named Ron Zamir discussed how some of the rhetoric of people calling for a ceasefire has bred fear among members of the Jewish community. Some of his comments were met by shouts from the audience.

Councilmember Chris Wharton took a moment to state that comments targeting the mayor or members of the Council are not persuasive for him. The Council was then met with shouts calling for a ceasefire or criticizing the Council, and Councilmember Puy called for a short recess.

Eventually, after a series of additional disruptions, Puy adjourned the meeting early, even though multiple registered speakers had yet to make their comments to the Council.

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At Kol Ami Synagogue, it requires an act of courage just to go to services

01/28/2024 07:18:53 AM


Lee Benson, Deseret News

Rabbi Samuel Spector, of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, talks about the conflicts in Ukraine and also Israel during an interview on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024.Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

For most of us, the war in Israel is a dull ache, a reminder whenever one happens to glance at the news that after all these years hatred is still thriving in the Middle East.

But here, at the Kol Ami Synagogue in the Salt Lake foothills, it’s more than that, much more. As sundown approaches on a recent Friday afternoon, signaling the start of the Jewish Sabbath, a police car, manned by an off-duty cop, is parked at the entrance, its blue and red lights flashing — the standard greeting now for congregants as they arrive for evening services. They pass through recently upgraded motion-detecting floodlights and then wait to be buzzed in at the front door.

Security is always an expense at the synagogue, as it is at virtually all Jewish places of worship, but Rabbi Samuel Spector says since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Kol Ami has been compelled to spend thousands more on safety measures.

The answer to ending the madness, to seeing the police car turn off its lights and drive away?

“Stop hating Jews,” is the rabbi’s short answer. “Let the people live and live in peace.”

The rabbi is no militant, no warmonger. He’s long been a proponent of the moderate idea of carving out a portion of Israel and giving it to the Palestinian people for their home. As he sees it, if there’s anything good to say about the current situation, it’s that it could pave the way for the two-state solution to finally become a reality.

“I actually have more hope for two-state than I did before Oct. 7,” he says. “I feel like (before the war) there were people on the extreme right who said all this should be ours and people on the extreme left who said why can’t we all just get along and create one country. Now, I think both extremes have realized that’s not going to be the case.”

He continues, “The far right had always said, ‘Vote for us if you want safety and security,’ and now we’ve seen the biggest collapse of security in Israel’s history and largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, so I think this has revived the opportunity for more moderate leadership in Israel. I don’t think Israel will tolerate any more Gaza being led by Hamas, so hopefully there will be people who take over in Gaza who will feel the international pressure for a two-state solution.”

Meanwhile, he sees no other course than to continue to battle an enemy whose pronounced goal is the extermination of Jews.

“The Hamas charter openly states it is committed to genocide of the Jewish people,” he says. “They’ve said Oct. 7 is just a preview, that they’re going to do this a thousand more times. If Israel laid down their weapons, there’d be a second Holocaust.”

Rabbi Spector was in Israel twice last year, in August, about a month before the Hamas attack, on a congregant synagogue trip, and again in November, about a month after the fighting began, as part of a fellowship of young American rabbis. The trip had been scheduled long before the war, and he could have stayed safe at home, as some rabbis elected to do. But Rabbi Spector decided to go. “The point of our trip was to strengthen ties and show the Israelis they’re not alone, so our trip seemed more important than ever,” he says.

The atmosphere he felt between the two visits was night and day.

In the August visit, “It was in the midst of the judicial reform debate and I’d never seen a country more divided,” he says, “and in November, I’d never seen a country more united.

“It felt a lot like the United States on Sept. 12, 2001,” he continues. “People were heartbroken and at the same time doing all they could to pull together. I was in a hotel where everybody else was an internal refugee who had been displaced from the southern border. People just showed up at the hotel, shouting in the lobby, ‘I have a washing machine, who needs their clothes washed?’ It didn’t matter if you were religious or secular, a man or a woman, straight, gay, Jewish or Muslim or Christian, everybody had been affected by this war and everybody stepped up to help each other. That was incredibly inspiring.”

All while the threat of war was unrelenting.

“When I checked into my hotel, they told me where the bomb shelter was, and to take my shower in the morning because Hamas usually fires its rockets in the evening,” says the rabbi.

Here at home, he’s seen a similar coming together by his congregation — the largest in Utah at some 1,200 members. Although it’s not universal. “Some have been inspired to come out more,” he says, “and there are some who said they’re too scared to come.”

He reviews the reasons why: “Since Oct. 7, we’ve received four bomb threats, we’ve had protesters outside our building protesting the Israeli government — when we’re not the Israeli government, we’re a synagogue of Jewish Americans — we had a guy who drove through our parking lot screaming oaths at us, we had someone who drove at a bunch of us on the sidewalk, we have received numerous voicemails and emails that are threatening in nature.”

And so life goes on. At the Kol Ami Synagogue, situated on a beautiful plot of land overlooking the lights of Salt Lake City, surrounded by peaceful east side neighborhoods, in the land of the free and the brave, the cold hard truth is that it requires an act of courage just to go to a service.

“It’s something we’ve dealt with our entire history,” Rabbi Spector sighs. “It’s sad, but there hasn’t been a time when we haven’t been hated, when we haven’t had people trying to kill us.”

See the full article here

Utahns on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

12/31/2023 12:00:00 PM


Francia Henriquez Benson

From the moment of the savage attack by Hamas on civilians in Israel on October 7, and the subsequent kidnapping of more than 240 people, the war has only become more explosive. 

In retaliation, Israel has been defensively bombing Gaza with the intent to capture Hamas militants and recover the hostages. However, the worldwide outcry is due to innocent civilians, including children, being killed and their homes destroyed. On the other hand, Israel grieves the murders of more than 1,400 of its citizens, while the families of the 240 hostages are being mentally and emotionally destroyed by despair and agony. They wonder, at every moment, if their loved ones are still alive and if they are being tortured. 

During wartime, civilian voices are seldom heard, despite being those most affected by war. Utah is home to many Palestinians and Jews who want to speak up. 

Sam Spector, the rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami, has raw sentiments about the Israel-Hamas war, “I am absolutely heartbroken whenever Israel is at war and life is lost, he said.” The rabbi had just returned from Israel, where he met with the victims and families of the hostages. 

For his part, the rabbi expresses his sentiments toward the Palestinian’s victims. “The loss of any innocent life is horrific. I am particularly devastated for the children who have been killed. Hamas … hid among their own population knowing full well that their death toll could be catastrophic. I am furious that Hamas is using their own civilians as human shields and hiding among their population and firing rockets from schools.”

For the conflict to end, the rabbi feels that both sides must make painful concessions,” adding that, “They must devote their education programs for their youth to ones that promote peace and tolerance. Both sides must recognize that the other’s narrative has validity and claim to the land.”

Rabbi Spector explained, “I met with people who were wounded in the massacre and loved ones of the hostages and those killed. There are at least a dozen Americans who were taken hostage and dozens killed. This should be on the front page of every American newspaper. Many of the female victims, in particular, experienced brutal sexual assaults. Yet, people are remaining silent about this, and many are even calling into question the validity of what they experienced.”

See the full article here

Salt Lake police chief: ‘We stand up to bigotry and evilness’

12/19/2023 08:09:06 PM


Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News

Bonneville Elementary School principal Karen Holman, like most school principals at this time of year, was looking forward to winter break.

Instead of relishing the slide into the long-awaited vacation, teachers at the Salt Lake City public school were leading delicate classroom discussions Monday morning after their school was defaced with hate-filled words and symbols over the weekend.

“We shared some messages with our students this morning to their age-appropriate level because some kids knew about it and some kids didn’t but we didn’t want to have them hear the playground talk about it,” Holman said.

The fifth graders created and hung a decoration in the school hallway that says “Love is powerful.” Other children, unprompted, colored papers with messages about love, acceptance and dignity.

“It’s amazing to watch these kids turn and be like, ‘We’re not going to lower ourselves to the standard of what was done to us,’” Holman said.

Shortly before 11:30 a.m. Sunday, a community member reported finding hate speech sprayed on school property, according to Salt Lake City police.

Officers found racist, homophobic and antisemitic hate speech and symbols painted on school property. Some of the messages were written with white chalk. Officers also found hate speech directed at people with physical disabilities.

The incident is being investigated as a possible hate crime, according to police.

Rabbi Samuel Spector of Congregation Kol Ami said a family who attends the synagogue also has children who attend Bonneville Elementary. They asked him if they should send them to school.

“It’s unfortunate that here in America and here in Salt Lake City, Utah, people can be made to feel unsafe and wonder if sending their children to elementary school is the right decision,” he said.

As the Bonneville Elementary School community dealt with the vandalism and messages of hate left at the school, three bomb threats were leveled against Congregation Kol Ami in recent days, one on Friday, the last day of Chanukah, and two on Monday.

“We’ve seen a 400% increase in antisemitism in the United States since Oct. 7, when antisemitism has already been at an all-time high each year for the past eight years. What this stuff does is, it’s just trying to instill fear and terror into Jewish communities. Unfortunately, it’s occurring everywhere,” said Rabbi Spector.

In a recent conversation with his wife, Rabbi Spector said he asked, “Where would we go that does not have antisemitism?”

“We couldn’t think of a single place. So unfortunately, this is our reality. Utah is a wonderful place to live, but unfortunately, we’re not immune to the problem of antisemitism here as well,” he said.

In times like these, “just know that your Jewish friends need love and support. They need to know that there are far more people here that love them than hate them. Our Jewish institutions right now are being bled dry because of the amount of money we’re all having to spend on security is beyond some of our means. We’re having to dig deep to find that money and we just need to know that people love us and that you know, that they recognize that we’re going through a challenging time.”

Rabbi Spector said Brown and Mendenhall also reached to him personally, which meant a great deal. In addition, police deployed canine officers to clear the buildings at Congregation Kol Ami.

On the one hand, there is much appreciated support but there is also a lot of misunderstanding about the religious community.

“Regardless of your views on the Hamas/Israel war, your local Jewish community is not the Israeli government or the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). While we stand with Israel, we are not the army, we are not the government. Targeting us because of issues you might have with the Israeli government or Israel’s military operations is a form of antisemitism,” he said.

Neither bomb threats nor protesting outside Congregation Kol Ami synagogue “is going to make an impact on the war on the other side of the world, one way or another,” Rabbi Spector said.

“It’s just going to terrorize innocent American Jews and in this case, with an elementary school, our synagogue and preschool, they’re children who have nothing to do with any of this conflict,” he said.

See the full article here

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784