A world away from Israel, L.A.’s Jewish community reels under vast sense of loss
When Sharon Farber turned her phone back on after seeing a play with her daughter Saturday, frantic WhatsApp messages poured in from the other side of the world.
Her sister in Israel told her that she and other relatives were hiding in bomb shelters because the country was under attack. Terrified and unable to work or sleep, Farber spent the day and night on the phone, calling and texting family and friends, and scrolling through the news.
“Here, you’re so far away,” said Farber, a film composer and the music director for Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts. “There’s nothing you can do, except for lose your mind from worry.”
Those feelings of fear and helplessness were echoed by many Sunday in Los Angeles’ Jewish community, which was reeling from the deadliest attack in Israel in decades during what was supposed to be a holiday weekend of celebration.
By Sunday afternoon, more than 1,100 Israelis and Palestinians were reported dead as Israel mounted a relentless counterattack to the surprise assault by Hamas militants, raising the specter of a protracted war. Among the dead, Farber had learned, was the son of a longtime friend. With a death toll so large in an area so small, “you will know someone who’s no longer with us,” wounded or kidnapped, Farber said.
“The lack of power to do something to help is really hard,” she said.
A possibly protracted — and broadened — Middle East conflict looms as Israel and Hamas militants trade fire, leaving hundreds dead on both sides.
The Los Angeles area, Mayor Karen Bass noted, is home to the second-largest Jewish population outside of Israel. Streets in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood would normally be shut down this weekend for parties in honor of Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday marking the completion of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah. But this year, the mood was somber as police stepped up security in Jewish and Muslim communities alike.
“It will forever be a day of memorial and sadness,” said Rebecca Wizman, standing outside a Pico Boulevard synagogue. “It’s supposed to be the happiest day of the year.”
She and three others were discussing who they knew preparing to fly to Israel to fight. Batsheva Pinto said many people from her congregation were headed there. So was her brother-in-law.
For two days, Wizman said, everyone she knew had been operating in an information vacuum. Because of the holidays, they hadn’t been able to check their phones since Friday night.
Wizman said she was dreading Sunday evening, when she would once again be able to go online and read the latest headlines. She assumed the death toll had mounted; she was scared to learn by how much.
“We’re not looking forward to it,” she said. “We want to know our people are OK, but we know they’re not.”
“They’re telling us no matter what you do, don’t watch the videos,” said another member of the group, David Abezis.
For Rabbi David Baron of Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts, watching the attacks unfold reminded him of 9/11.
“As the hours continued, we got to understand more and more of the scope of what had happened,” he said. “It became clear this was not just simple, one-off act of terrorism, but a coordinated and organized invasion and attack.”
Over the weekend, he spoke with his cousins in Jerusalem, friends in Tel Aviv, and others he’d seen when he visited Israel twice this summer for two weddings and four bar mitzvahs.
“They all emphasized how the scale and scope of this attack was just massive and bold,” said Baron, 72. “No mercy shown to anyone.”
One of Baron’s friends had taken his two young daughters to Cyprus for the holiday, while his wife stayed behind to care for her mom. He said she was staying close to where missiles struck.
“She said to her husband, ‘I’m very glad you took the girls, they would be so traumatized by this,’” he said. With flights into the country halted, Baron said, they can’t yet travel back to Israel.
Yossie Ziff walked down Pico Boulevard on Sunday, still teary-eyed from the morning service at the synagogue down the road.
Two years ago, Ziff said, he moved from Pico-Robertson to the Israeli city of Modi’in. He was back in Los Angeles last week visiting his grandchildren and was just stepping into the synagogue Saturday morning when he heard about the attacks.
Everyone he’s spoken with back home is physically OK, he said, but reeling from the same emotions as him.
“Pain. Sadness. Concern about friends,” he said. “The country is in shock.”
Ziff said the congregation was clearly in mourning. He was not the only one who sat through the service with tears in his eyes, but he said they were determined to make it the kind of holiday it was supposed to be: one of jubilation.
“I went and celebrated with joy, in spite of the sadness of what has happened,” he said.
Not everyone could stomach celebrating.
“It’s hard. It’s our duty to celebrate,” said Nathan Pazooky, 29. “But I don’t know how.”
Across the street, a group holding a Torah had just broken out in jubilant chanting. Many probably did not yet know the scope of the carnage.
“There’s a lot of people, bless their hearts, a lot of them don’t know the extent of what’s happening,” Pazooky said.
Leaders in Southern California denounced the deadly attack by Hamas and moved to bolster security at local Jewish sites.
In Anaheim’s Little Arabia neighborhood, much of the fear and uncertainty that gripped Pico-Robertson was just as evident.
Aref Mohammad, owner of Al Baraka restaurant, said Saturday that he was calling his siblings in Gaza nearly every hour to make sure they were safe.
At a nearby table, a Palestinian man named Nazeeh said the Israeli and U.S. governments were partly to blame for the tragedy after failing to find a peaceable solution to the long-running conflict.
“People in the Gaza Strip live in a big prison,” said Nazeeh, who asked to withhold his last name for fear that his businesses could face retaliation. “It’s a human tragedy on both sides. Killing children is a tragedy. Innocent people are getting crushed.”
Sitting on a ledge Sunday outside Chabad Persian Youth Center in Pico-Robertson, Jay Israel said his heart broke for the hundreds of innocent Israelis and Palestinians who would die as a result of the latest bout of fighting.
“The leaders are safe, the civilians are getting killed,” he said. “When they drop the bombs, the missiles, both sides get hurt.”
“Any war is the worst thing,” he said.
Times staff writer James Queally and staff photographer Irfan Khan contributed to this report.
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