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Israel-Hamas war hits home for Pensacola’s Jewish Community

Rabbi Mendel Danow and his family.
Courtesy photo
Rabbi Mendel Danow and his family.

The death toll continues to rise, as the violence has intensified since the weekend in Israel and in the Palestinian territory. The impact of this latest conflict is being felt thousands of miles away, including here in Northwest Florida.

In particular, it’s a very difficult time for members of Pensacola’s Jewish community.

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“This past weekend was the holiday of Simchat Torah, which is actually one of the most joyous days on the Jewish calendar,” said Rabbi Mendel Danow who leads the Pensacola Chabad Jewish Center. He says the holiday celebrates and marks the conclusion of the annual reading of the Torah.

“Come Saturday morning, when we’re supposed to be dancing and it’s supposed to be a joyous time, some of the congregants show up at the Jewish center and they were in tears. So, I tell them, ‘What’s going on? Is everything OK?’ And we find out of the heart-wrenching reports of what was going on in Israel.”

The Palestinian militant group Hamas executed a surprise early morning attack on Israel, launching a series of rocket strikes on cities across the country, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and also taking hostages. As more information began to trickle in on network news reports and calls from loved ones in the region, the brutality of the attack came into focus.

“It was so disheartening,” Danow began. “It was so horrible to hear of the unbelievable atrocities that had been going on and it was horrendous. I would say it was one of the worst days of my life.”

Another member of Pensacola’s Jewish community, who’s from Israel, told the rabbi that Saturday was worse than the day that his mother passed away.

Rabbi Danow’s wife is from Israel and they both have family there. Under the circumstances, they’re doing well.

“They’re in and out of bomb shelters, so on and so forth; there are literal rockets falling right near their homes,” said the rabbi, describing the situation. “But, thank God, they’re doing OK.”

However, Danow points out that he has several friends who are members of the Israel Defense Forces, who’ve been called to the front lines.

“And, one of them, unfortunately, was killed in battle. It’s a dear friend, someone who (I) had a great relationship with,” he recalled. “We spent so many happy times together and now he lost his life in order to save his brothers and sisters in Israel.”

Rabbi Mendel Danow speaks at a vigil to pray for Israel on Monday evening.
Courtesy photo
Rabbi Mendel Danow speaks at a vigil to pray for Israel on Monday evening.

Others in the Pensacola community are suffering the impacts of the Israel-Hamas war, including an Israeli exchange student who attends the University of West Florida.

“He lost two friends who were killed,” he explained the rabbi, adding that another of the student’s friends was kidnapped. “She’s a hostage and no one knows what’s going on with her.”

In an act of unity, the Jewish center hosted a prayer vigil for victims of the attack on Israel Monday evening, with about 80 people attending. According to Danow, it was needed to offset the prevailing feeling of hopelessness and helplessness.

“You know, what can we even do? We’re sitting here in Pensacola and this is happening thousands of miles away across the world. And, of course, everyone’s glued to their screens and trying to get the latest update to what’s going on,” he said of the plight of the local community. “And it’s so hard.”

In the days since the initial attack, Israel has retaliated, declaring war on Hamas, conducting rocket strikes on targets in Gaza and putting the territory under full siege, allowing no electricity, no fuel, and no food. It’s a growing humanitarian crisis that has the people there at risk of starvation.

First and foremost, the rabbi is concerned about the people of Israel and wants the atrocities against them acknowledged. But he’s also mindful of the innocent civilians who live in Gaza, saying ‘we’re all human beings and we all deserve a good life.’

“I can’t tell you what the right thing to do is, how this war should play out — that’s not my job,” declared Danow, who prefers to leave that to those experts who deal with such matters for a living.

“What I do for a living is to comfort people, to strengthen them, to give them a sense of hope and this is what I would like to focus on.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.