Michelle Herman is a professional therapist, but she has found herself nearly at a loss over how to handle her emotions after the militant group Hamas killed 1,300 people in Israel in a surprise attack this month.
“As a Jew, I just feel powerless on many levels,” said Herman, who lives in Melville.
When a former Hamas leader called for a “day of rage” last week in support of Palestinians, she was so concerned that she had her two children stay home from school.
Across the Jewish community on Long Island, a sense of fear, trauma, shock and paralysis has taken hold following the worst single-day massacre of Jewish people since the Holocaust. Some compare it to what many New Yorkers and Americans felt after the 9/11 attacks.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The Israel-Hamas war is stirring deep emotions across the world and on Long Island.
- Some religious and community organizations are offering counseling to help people cope with their feelings.
- The war is making it very difficult for interfaith groups to continue their dialogue because emotions prompted by the war are running so high.
“We all had this sense of safeness,” said Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, leader of the Orthodox Chabad movement on Long Island. But after the Hamas attack, “The world has changed and we’re not going back to those times. There is a lot of trauma … People are feeling very insecure, and it reaches very deep.”
Emotions running high on both sides
Those same intense feelings are emerging in Long Island’s Muslim community, as Israel responds to the Hamas attack with a counteroffensive, and hundreds of civilians die in the Gaza strip.
Laurice Abdelhalim, an optician who lives in Brentwood and is of Palestinian descent, has found herself randomly bursting into tears at her job. She mourns for the Israeli dead but also for Palestinians now perishing under the Israeli assault and amid the blockade that has kept basic staples out of the territory.
She has viewed videos of the carnage.
“All you see is little kids all over the ground wherever you walk,” she said. “How are you supposed to feel when you see that?”
The people in Gaza “have no water. They have no food. They have no electricity. They have nothing.”
For Jewish people, there is almost a symbolic umbilical cord between New York and Israel, their homeland established in 1948. Israel's population of about 9 million is so small that seemingly every Jewish Long Islander has a direct connection to someone over there, leaders said.
“Whenever any part of our family experiences a trauma and atrocities, all of us feel it,” said Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center. “The families in Israel and all of us on Long Island have been affected.”
The feelings of anger and pain are so strong on both sides that decades of interfaith work aimed at building bridges between the Jewish and Muslim communities on Long Island have come to a standstill, according to leaders on both sides.
The Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, one of the oldest mosques in the region, has been a leader in this effort, partly through its Interfaith Institute of Long Island. But the war in the Middle East has set it back in a major way, with dialogue nearly vanishing overnight, leaders said.
“Even with these 40 years of relationships, we have not been able to come together,” said Mufti Mohammad Farhan, executive director of the mosque and one of its spiritual leaders. “The situation is such that it is just very difficult.”
Isma Chaudhry, another leader of the mosque, said: “Both sides have lost so much innocent life. Both the Muslim community, the Palestinian community, the Jewish community, is in a state of shock and mourning.”
People appear to need time to heal from the raw wounds of the conflict before they can start talking again, she said.
“More than anything else, there is anger, there is frustration, there is a feeling of being destroyed. And that needs healing,” Chaudhry said. “A lot of bridge builders — we don’t know what is the right thing to say. Not because our hearts are not there. It’s just that whatever is being said, might not be enough to heal.”
Both sides are dealing with a frenzy of raw emotions — fueling tensions in a way that makes constructive dialogue extremely difficult. The Jewish community, galvanized by the Hamas attack, appears unified in its belief that Israel must respond forcefully to Hamas, and eliminate it, leaders said, even if that means civilian casualties. “The unity in the Jewish world now is absolutely unprecedented, left, right, Orthodox, totally secular,” Teldon said.
Many Muslims, while condemning Hamas’ violence, also point to what they call decades of human rights abuses and killings by the Israeli military against Palestinians. They don’t feel the historical context of their story gets equal billing on the world stage, adding to long-standing feelings of isolation and anger.
On Oct. 7, 2023, the Hamas militant group launched an attack on Israel, which resulted in thousands of deaths and casualties. In response, Israel declared war and began its own assault on Hamas. Here's the latest on the war:
On Long Island, the war has prompted both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine rallies, while many have sought to provide aid to Israel, including a Lloyd Harbor teen who started a fundraiser to help families of fallen Israeli cops.
How did we get here? Here are some answers to questions about the Mideast conflict.
Click here for complete coverage of the war.
Counseling offered for war-related trauma
The pain and the pressures are leading more people in each camp to seek psychological and spiritual help. Rick Lewis, CEO of Mid Island Y JCC and Suffolk Y JCC in Commack, said his organizations will be ramping up counseling services, including "community circles" where people will gather to share their thoughts and feelings.
“People’s stress and their fear is just mounting like crazy,” he said. “There is no doubt people are going through a traumatic experience and at the same time looking for what they can do to be hopeful.”
The mosque in Westbury also is bringing in more counseling professionals to help people cope, Farhan said. He added that some Muslim parents have told him they are afraid to send their children out in public in traditional Islamic clothing.
Buechler is telling his flock not to watch horrific online videos of the killings, which will only increase their trauma.
“We are working with every age of our community to not let the terrorists terrorize us,” he said. “We are telling people, instead of being paralyzed by fear, to stand strong with Israel.”
One way to do that is to fundraise to help the Israelis, he said. Another synagogue, Temple Sinai of Roslyn, raised $250,000 in five days, Rabbi Michael White said.
“This is family. Our family was attacked, brutally,” White said, referring to Israelis.
Jewish teenagers and children on Long Island, decades removed from the Holocaust, appear especially stunned by the violence, he added.
“They have not experienced this level of Jew hatred before, and it’s very scary for them,” White said.