Last Friday, I drove to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center for Reach for Shabbat, BJ’s annual 3rd-6th grade family Shabbat retreat. Earlier that day, I had seen the profound images of the empty Shabbat tables in Tel Aviv and around the world, set for the 200+ Israeli hostages who were about to spend their second Shabbat in captivity. Again, I was overcome by the grief, horror, and uncertainty of the past few weeks. My fragile heart yearned to be immersed in the loving embrace of community. Reach for Shabbat is always a magical experience, but this time, in the midst of this nightmare, it was even more so. The theme for the weekend, reconnection, was exactly what I needed to catch my breath.
At the retreat, we reconnected with the beauty of Shabbat: Together, dressed in white, over 100 BJ children, parents, and staff welcomed Shabbat with prayer, music, and dance. The children ran outside the doors of the chapel where we were holding services to greet the Shabbat Queen, just as the mystics did in Northern Israel hundreds of years ago. Families shared words of Torah about the power of community—how it anchors them in times of fear; how it transcends time by merging past, present, and future; and how Shabbat has become a much-needed refuge from the tsunami of life and the heaviness of the world.
The sacred time we spent together helped us reconnected with community, feeling its depth and support. Sixth-grade students and their families began to explore the meaning of becoming a B-Mitzvah and the importance of having a community to hold us in our times of joy and sorrow. As two children read Torah for the very first time, we wrapped our arms around each other and sang the Sheheheyanu blessing. And after Shabbat had ended, we watched as many children (and some brave grownups) participated in the talent show—a highlight of the retreat that captures our community at its best, allowing each child to feel loved, cared for, and valued enough to get up in front of others and to do whatever act their heart desires.
And, like all great Shabbat retreats, we shared wonderful meals together, delighting in conversation and delicious food. Our table was overflowing both metaphorically and physically—a stark and painful contrast to the empty Shabbat tables that so hauntingly symbolize those who can no longer be with their families on Shabbat. A Shabbat table that has place settings for 20 children under the age of 18 who were kidnapped, one as young as 9 months, and for another 10 to 20 who are believed to be over the age of 80. It is unfathomable. It is shocking. I find myself squeezing my children a little tighter these days as my heart aches for the children and parents of all ages, Israeli and Palestinian, who have lost their lives, are in need of food and water, or have been separated from one another.
As we move into a third Shabbat with hundreds of our siblings still in captivity, and now have our own empty table installation here on the Upper West Side as well as across NYC, I hold the contrast of these two tables in my broken heart. A vibrant Shabbat table full of families and children at the retreat; a distressingly clean, desolate, and silent table that awaits its guests.
As challenging and painful as it is, last weekend reminded me how crucial it is for us to continue to find moments to sit around our full Shabbat tables together. And, as we do, we must also continue to hold the harrowing reality of an empty table, bearing witness to each vacant chair. We need to listen to the cries of the family and friends of the hostages who, in their unimaginable suffering, find the strength to speak out, travel the world, and meet with officials and world leaders. Who are living in the depths of an alternative universe, as described by Rachel Goldberg Polin, the mother of kidnapped 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin.
Maimonides teaches that there is no greater commandment than pidyon shvuyim, the redemption of captives. It is upon us, as a community, as human beings, to do what we can to help bring them home now. To continuously reach out to our elected officials, to post and share their stories on social media, and to keep the captives front and center in the news until they reconnect with their families. To fill each of the seats of the Shabbat table. May this Shabbat be another Shabbat of reconnection—this time for our beloved siblings in captivity and their loved ones.
מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב, וְאִמּוֹתֵינוּ שָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה, הוּא יְבָרֵךְ וְיִשְׁמֹר וְיִנְצֹר אֶת כָּל אַחֵינוּ וְאֲחְיוֹתֵינוּ הַנֶעְדָרִים הַנְּתוּנִים בְּצָרָה וּבְשִׁבְיָה. הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יִמָּלֵא רַחֲמִים עֲלֵיהֶם, וְיוֹצִיאֵם מֵחֹשֶׁךְ וְצַלְמָוֶת, וּמוֹסְרוֹתֵיהֶם יְנַתֵּק, וּמִמְּצוּקוֹתֵיהֶם יוֹשִׁיעֵם, וִישִׁיבֵם מְהֵרָה לְחֵיק מִשְׁפְּחוֹתֵיהֶם. וִיקֻיַּם בָּהֶם מִקְרָא שֶׁכָּתוּב: וּפְדוּיֵי ה׳ יְשֻׁבוּן, וּבָאוּ צִיּוֹן בְּרִנָּה, וְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם עַל־רֹאשָׁם, שָׂשׂוֹן וְשִׂמְחָה יַשִׂיגוּ, וְנָסוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה: וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן
May the Holy One who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless, protect and guard our missing brothers and sisters who are in distress and captivity. May the Holy Compassionate One bring them out of darkness and the shadow of death; may God break their bonds, deliver them from their distress, and bring them swiftly back to their families’ embrace. May there be fulfilled in them the verse: “Those redeemed by God will return; they will enter Zion with singing, and everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” And let us say: Amen.