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Facing 'unbearable communal desperation', some Jewish communities turn to fasting

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The attacks in Israel have left many in Jewish communities searching for a way to respond to bear the unbearable.

AVI KILLIP: Fasting offers us a way to channel a moment of unbearable communal desperation. I'm Rabbi Avi Killip, and I'm the executive vice president of Hadar, which is a Jewish religious and educational institution in New York City.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Killip felt the events of these last few days have called for a religious response.

KILLIP: How do we take these visceral feelings of anger and of grief, and how do we cry out together to God and demand a different reality? There are times when prayer is not sufficient. It can't contain our anguish, and we need something more tangible. And there's a longstanding Jewish tradition of decreeing additional fast days in moments of communal crisis.

CHANG: Killip says more than 800 Jewish leaders, representing thousands of individuals, have joined in the fast, which lasts from sunup to sundown today.

KILLIP: As we call people up to invite them to participate, we just didn't get a single no. Everyone felt like this is the right move. This is powerful.

SHMUEL HERZFELD: When we fast, we're saying to our brothers and sisters in Israel that we are with you. We are one.

KELLY: We spoke to Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in front of the Embassy of Israel here in Washington. He was with members of his yeshiva, reciting psalms.

HERZFELD: We're not fighting on the frontlines in Israel. We need to fight on the frontlines of heaven. And so that's what we're doing at this time. We're praying with all of our hearts. We're fasting and repenting and - to try and shake the gates of heaven to our prayers.

CHANG: Rabbi Killip says that while she sees no possible way to make meaning from the events in Israel...

KILLIP: It has been very moving to see sort of the breadth of the participation across the Jewish spectrum in this fast. There are names on this document calling for this fast that you don't usually see on the same document and sharing ritual space. And so that has been very powerful to see people coming together through such an ancient ritual.

KELLY: In terms of continuing the fast, she says there are rules for when a fast does not work.

KILLIP: What do you do? You decree more and more fast. And you fast more and more often until there's actually a point in particular when you're fasting for rain, which is sort of the most archetypal fast of crisis - that at some point, you say, the rain's not coming, and you stop fasting. So I don't know. I imagine we will be reaching to wisdom and to Jewish law and tradition from previous generations about how they faced these moments.

CHANG: That was Rabbi Avi Killip, and we also heard from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "WHAT THEY DO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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