Jackson religious communities unite for vigil for Israel

In the wake of militant attacks, members of different Jewish and Christian groups gathered to pray and march to town square.
Children hold up signs saying "Pray for Israel" in front of the antler arch at Jackson Town Square. They were among the around 70 residents who came out to support Israel Monday night. (Emily Cohen/KHOL)

by | Oct 10, 2023 | News

Over seventy people gathered and sang next to the lit-up antlers of the Jackson Town Square Monday evening. They held signs saying “We Stand with Israel” and “Pray for Peace.”

Local Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn called on the community to pray at the Chabad Jewish Center and then march downtown to show support for victims in Israel, following the attack by Hamas militants in the country. 

As of the afternoon of Oct. 10, the war’s death toll had risen to over 1,800 in Gaza and Israel.

Around 70 people gather in the sukkah at the Chabad Jewish Center. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

“Knowing that we have friends and support from beyond the Jewish community gives us a lot of joy and strength and courage to be able to continue to move forward,” Mendelsohn said.

Earlier in the night, the crowd gathered under darkness in a lit-up, temporary hut, called a “sukkah.” The structure was constructed out of materials like bamboo and wood for the recent Sukkot holiday at the Chabad center off Broadway.

The mood was somber and some attendees wept. Candles burned in people’s hands and wax dripped to the dirt ground as the Jewish leaders led the group in song and recited psalms.

“We turn to these ancient words in the midst of our sadness, of darkness,” said Josh Kleyman, the lay leader of another organization, the Jackson Hole Jewish Community. “Standing under this sukkah, we turn to each other gathered together in an interfaith community.”

‘An interfaith community’

Nearly two dozen people from a local church, Tribe Jackson Hole, attended Monday’s vigil. Congregation member Justin Waters called the prayers of the night “sobering.”

“We’re a non-denominational Christian church but recognize that the roots of our faith are based in Judaism and still see that Israel holds an importance in our lives and in our faith,” Waters said.

The pastor of the church, Brian Hunter, said he and Rabbi Mendelsohn have a growing friendship. During the singing at town square, Hunter told Mendelsohn, “We’re with you.”

Children light each other’s candles at the rally at the Jackson Town Square. (Emily Cohen/KHOL)

He continued, “Let us know what we can do to love and support you.”

Vice Mayor Arne Jorgensen also spoke at the vigil.

“As many of you know, I’m not Jewish,” Jorgensen said. “But I cannot imagine the pain within your communities.”  

“Please know that your town council, the town of Jackson supports you, cares for you, as we do with all of our community when we’re in pain,” he said.

Two officers from the Teton County Sheriff’s Office attended the vigil and rally. One officer said they don’t do this for all rallies in town, but come if requested.

Mendelsohn said he only saw support for his rally, with no counter protesters. 

Family and friends in Israel

Many people at Monday’s vigil said they have family and friends living in Israel. Rabbi Mendelsohn said he has an aunt and cousins there. 

His father-in-law, Avraham Roston, lives in Israel but was visiting Jackson this week. 

“People come together in an amazing way,” Roston said, while walking to the rally. “There’s a lot of unity.”

Mendelsohn said Roston is from Ramat Beit Shemesh, a neighborhood outside of Jerusalem. He said police knocked on his father-in-law’s door Monday, telling people in the building to shelter in place because a terrorist may have been on the loose.

Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn speaks to the crowded room about where to find hope amid the recent violence is Israel. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

“It is very scary,” Roston said. “And the community really feels it as a family. When there’s suffering and great losses, it affects everybody in the country.”

Mendelsohn said he supports Israel “clearing up some of the dangers” in reference to militant group Hamas. 

Once we work on cleaning that up, I think there will be a bright and beautiful future for both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people,” he said. “It will be much better for everyone living in that region of the world.”

Israel is currently retaliating by bombing the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory controlled by Hamas. Humanitarian groups are calling for the creation of aid corridors to help those in Gaza.

Jewish leaders in Teton County are encouraging residents to donate to organizations, like United Hatzalah, that help provide medical assistance to people in Israel. As of Tuesday afternoon, the organization had brought in over $9,000 through its “Wyoming Israel Solidarity” page. 

Members of the Jackson Hole Jewish Community are holding 8 a.m. prayer services on Zoom for the rest of the week. On Monday, the group put out a statement addressing the recent violence.

“Let us stand together as a united front against hatred, discrimination, and violent extremism,” the statement says. “We will unequivocally condemn violent terrorism against Jews in Israel and throughout the world.”

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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