A world away from conflict, Israel-Hamas war proves divisive for Minnesota Jews

A man sits at an office desk
Rabbi Adam Spilker poses for a portrait in his office at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul on Nov. 20.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

At Minnesota State University, Mankato, the Jewish community on campus recently held a formal gathering for the first time in decades.

The last time there was a Jewish Student Association was in the 1990s, and it was started by Rachel Maccabee. Now, Maccabee works at the university, directing a program that addresses campus sexual assault. There are about 14,000 students on campus. Of those, Maccabee believes about a dozen may be Jewish.

“It can be lonely and difficult to find support and to know how to be celebrant of a culture and a religion. And letting people know it’s safe to feel that way,” Maccabee said.

A Jewish student told her they were feeling isolated and confused. They decided to make posters, and invite any of the Jewish campus community members they could reach to a gathering.

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Maccabee was one of five Jewish people gathered in a small room in the student union on a November evening.

The meeting started with introductions and favorite Jewish traditions. But the conversation quickly turned to what has been weighing on their minds and the minds of many Jews in Minnesota: the Israel-Hamas war.  

A person wearing beaded earings leans on her right arm
Rachel Maccabee leads a small group of Jewish students at the MSU Mankato Centennial Student Union on Nov. 7.
Lukas Levin | MPR News

Students shared concern, feelings of disruption, anxiety and, most significantly, a need for community. A graduate student who attended the meeting said she feels out of place among friends.

“I feel like my feelings are complicated enough, but they seem really sure about how they feel. I’m finding that really hard,” she said.

“I feel like a sense of community is something that I really needed. Like, with the war and everything going on right now … especially because I was just in Israel this summer for three weeks,” said a freshman student.

The group talked for about an hour but never in-depth about the war, instead focusing on the need to create community during such a divisive time.

The Oct. 7 Hamas attack and Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza strip has surfaced a wide spectrum of emotions for Jews. Some know where they stand, others are changing their perspectives, and some are unsure where to even begin. But people are guarded. Amid the tension, Jews are seeking opportunities to come together and they’re looking for guidance.

The Jewish connection to Israel

Rabbi Adam Spilker leads a community of about 700 households at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. It’s the oldest synagogue in Minnesota.  

“My role here is to help navigate all the different spaces that people need to be in to think about this issue,” Spilker said. “And so I think about how to be balanced, and when to push the envelope more when I feel like it needs to be pushed.”

At Mount Zion, as is common in synagogues around the world, the religious principle of Israel is a foundational part of daily Jewish education, prayer and culture, and has been for centuries. Israel is referenced in the Torah. Generations of Jews have centered Israel in their life and spirituality, and now it’s the center of fierce public discourse.

Zionism originated as a political movement advocating for the self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland.

“Our ancestors have been praying for a connection to Jerusalem and to Israel every day since we’ve left and were kicked out by the Romans,” Spilker said.

“This is an active desire, for two millennia, to be back in the land and connected. And not everyone felt that, but human history has shown that Jews need to be thinking about our own safety,” Spilker said.

Spilker tries to encourage his congregation to focus on the people of Israel, not the actions of the government, although he said they often get conflated.

“We've tried to help our students and ourselves, adults as well, develop the tools to critique the government. That’s not where we’re supposed to have loyalty to. It is a loyalty, in my mind, to the people and to the land,” Spilker said.

Spilker said he knows the war has prompted many Jews to question Zionism.

“My personal definition for Zionism right now — no one else is adopting this — but my personal definition right at this moment is caring about Jewish safety. And if you care about your safety, you have to align in some level with Zionism,” he said.

“Zionism used to be a project of imagination in the 19th century. Then for the last 75 years, a project of loyalty. It meant I’m loyal to — and people thought — the Government of Israel. And I just want to differentiate, it’s not that. It’s about the recognition that in our time, Israel is necessary for protecting now 7 million Jewish lives. And so that’s why I’m thinking about it in this way of thinking about safety.”

‘We’re a very small family’

Shai Avny grew up in Israel and moved to Minnesota with his wife five years ago. He worked with Spilker at Mount Zion Temple when he first moved. Now he works for the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, where he is chief operating officer, a position he started just a week before the war began.

On Oct. 7, he was surprised to hear his phone ringing in the middle of the night. It was his father-in-law calling to tell him the southern region of Israel was under attack.

“There are terrorists inside Kibbutzim, and they are slaughtering people in the streets,” Avny said his father-in-law told him. Immediately, Avny and his wife began frantically reaching out to friends and family in Israel who were hiding from Hamas.

A man speaks at a mic
Shai Avny speaks during a press conference to condemn the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Nov. 29.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

It didn’t take long for Avny to find out a friend was killed at the Nova music festival, where Hamas militants massacred at least 364 people. Avny said it took three weeks for authorities to identify his friend’s body because Hamas burned the bodies.

For Jews around the world, Israel has long represented a promise of safety. An estimated 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 others were abducted in the Hamas attack, making Oct. 7 the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

For Avny and many Jews, that loss of a sense of safety is not a new feeling. Avny’s family is from Iran.

“They used to come to my grandfather and tap on his head, because he was Jew. So what my grandmother did, she put underneath his hat — it was an Orthodox hat — she put needles underneath the hat. So if someone will come and tap, you will get stung with needles,” Avny said. “When you don’t understand what is to live in the diaspora, without a sense of security, you can’t understand why Israel needs to defend itself.”

Avny wishes he could be in Israel.

“Most of Israelis will tell you that they don’t want to be here right now. It sounds weird because you’re in a safe place. But all I want to do is to go to Israel and be with my family and my friends,” Avny said. “I feel guilty, too.”

Stacks of lawn signs
White and blue “We Stand With Israel” lawn signs are stacked in the Minneapolis Jewish Federation offices on Nov. 20.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I’m lucky because I work in a Jewish institution. I do things that help the Jewish community, but I want to be in Israel right now,” Avny said.

Many Jews in Minnesota have also been calling family and friends in Israel. Jews who grew up going to a sleep-away camp in the summer often had Israeli campmates or counselors. Hillel, a Jewish organization affiliated with colleges — including the University of Minnesota — has an Israel fellow. Israel permeates across much of modern Jewish culture and life.

There are an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims in the world and 1.4 billion Catholics, but Spilker noted that “when I ask people, ‘How many Jews in the world?’, I get all kinds of different answers.”

The worldwide Jewish population peaked in 1939 before the Holocaust at about 16.7 million and today stands at about 15.2 million, according to Virtual Jewish Library. The library also notes that 47.9 percent of the world’s Jews now live in the U.S. and 47.1 percent live in Israel.

“It is a really small number,” Spilker said. “We are family, a very small family.”

Kidnapped posters hang on windows
Posters of people kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel line the windows at Minnesota Hillel in Minneapolis on Dec. 1.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘It’s not your truth versus my truth. It’s multiple truths are right.’ 

 Back in her Mankato office, Maccabee talked about how her views about Israel have evolved. When Maccabee was 19 she started studying Hebrew and began keeping kosher. She thought embracing her Judaism meant preserving Israel and supporting the Israeli army.

“There’s no way to be an American Jew and not have a falsely centered view of Israel,” she said.

Maccabee is also an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And during her master’s studies in peace and conflict resolution, she began thinking about Israel differently and seeing what is happening to Palestinians as similar to what happened to Indigenous people in the U.S. 

“I went from being someone that was patriotic, my favorite holiday was the Fourth of July and I would have signed up to join the IDF,” she said, referencing this Israeli army. “But now I have studied conflict and I analyzed conflicts, and I am fiercely antiracist and anti-Zionist.”

Spilker said he often sees Jews put themselves in one of two camps: “There are two different values that are often talked about: justice and self-preservation. Both are Jewish values, and the third value is compromise. So I think people from the left tend to focus on justice, people on the right tend to focus on self-preservation. And that polarizes people. And you think that you have to say one or the other, and you don't.”

This is the core of the polarization. And there’s a noticeable rift between those two values. 

For example, the Minneapolis Teacher’s Federation in November issued a statement calling for the Minnesota Legislature to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, which led to outrage from some Jewish teachers while other Jewish teachers signed a petition of support. 

People stand in front of an entrance
Protesters link arms to block an office building entrance during a rally for Palestine on Oct. 16.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

Pro-Palestinian rallies have taken place nearly every weekend in the Twin Cities since Israel began bombarding Gaza. Some have included Jewish voices such as IfNotNow, which is a movement of American Jews that advocates to “end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system,” and Jewish Voice for Peace, another Jewish anti-Zionist organization.

Rabbi Rebecca Rosenberg, who is on the rabbinical council for Jewish Voice for Peace, made national headlines when she interrupted President Joe Biden during a fundraising speech in Minneapolis on Nov. 1.

“As a rabbi, I need you to call for a ceasefire right now,” she said to Biden.

And while there haven’t been as many public Pro-Israel demonstrations here, Avny helped organize a trip for hundreds of Minnesota Jews to take their fears and frustrations to the U.S. Capitol for the March for Israel on Nov. 14. The Minneapolis Jewish Federation chartered a plane and took 200 Minnesotans to Washington, D.C.

“It was an amazing feeling because you had many from the Jewish community in Minnesota, in one plane united together, going to the rally. And when we came to the rally, you finally understand that you're not alone,” said Avny.  

Three people pose for a photo, one is draped in the US flag
Shai Avny (left) poses for a photo during the March for Israel in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14.
Courtesy of Shai Avny

Spilker acknowledged the rift in the community, but says many perspectives can coexist under Judaism.

“This is the thing that we try to say again and again: you can say both. You can say that it was a moral affront to everything about our humanity, that what Hamas did in an attack that was unspeakable. And at the same time my heart can break, as it does, for the refugees in Gaza who are now no longer in their homes,” said Spilker.

The United Nations estimates that 1.87 million Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced. The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said the death toll in the territory has surpassed 16,200, with more than 42,000 wounded.

The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but said 70 percent of the dead were women and children.

“It’s not your truth versus my truth. It’s multiple truths are right. And not everybody can live with multiple truths. It’s hard to. So maybe that’s the message: We can live with multiple truths. And we need to live with multiple truths if we’re going to stay together and get through this time,” said Spilker.  

Amid a rift, Jews unify against rising antisemitism

One thing unifying Jews locally is concern over a rise in antisemitism.

The Anti-Defamation League documented a 316 percent increase in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. in the first month of the war compared to the same period last year.

That includes incidents of assault, vandalism and harassment. The ADL includes “explicit or strong implicit support for Hamas and/or violence against Jews in Israel” at rallies as harassment.

Avny said he heard about a tense interaction among kids in St. Louis Park.

“Kids were coming to them and asking them, ‘Are you Jewish?’ And some of them said right away, ‘No.’ That was his instinct, even though he is Jewish. And then they told him, ‘If you’re not Jewish, say, ‘Free Palestine.’ And then he ran away.”

In the Twin Cities, the Jewish Community Relations Council has expedited a plan to provide community members with more private security. Cars wrapped with “JCRC Community Security” can be contracted for Jewish gatherings. The goal is to bring a visible security presence to deter any potential violence.  

A security vehicle parked outside a community center
A vehicle owned by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas is parked outside the Minnesota JCC Sabes Center in Minneapolis on Nov. 20.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

For Maccabee in Mankato, even just publicizing her small meeting for Jews on campus brought uncertainty.

“I’ve been nervous all day, not knowing what that space downstairs would look like or whose attention we would get,” she said on the day of the gathering.

“Antisemitism is real, and it is terrifying,” she said. Maccabee has family from the Pittsburgh, Penn., neighborhood of Squirrel Hill where 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018.

Spilker said it’s devastating to think about how this war will impact antisemitism.

“There is no question that this war is going to make Jewish life less safe around the world,” he said. 

A focus on humanity 

For many American Jews, Israel has been a part of their lives and cultural upbringing. Some have decided to move away from those teachings and others embrace them. But regardless, Spilker hopes Jews can focus on the humanity.

“The thing that I want the Jewish community, especially the older generations, to know is that we can instill it with a sense of compassion and time for conversation, a real love for humanity and for Israel, as well. And we need to figure out a way, and actually that we have no choice.” 

A large mosaic
The community mosaic, which was completed in 2018, hanging at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul is pictured on Nov. 20.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In the temple where Spilker spends his days, there is a colorful, intricate mosaic that took eight years to create. It’s split into four sections representing Israel; Tzedek, which translates to justice; Shabbat, the sabbath; and, in the middle, Torah.

The congregation chose one verse from the Torah to put on the scroll that sprawls across the piece. It reads: “ואהבת לרעך כמוך (V'ahavta L'Reacha Kamocha,).

Spilker provided a translation: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting.