Offir Gutelzon, co-founder of the Israeli expat protest group UnXeptable, hugs Marco Sermoneta, Israel's S.F.-based consul general, at an Oct. 8 gathering at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco in support of Israel, which was infiltrated and attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Offir Gutelzon, co-founder of the Israeli expat protest group UnXeptable, hugs Marco Sermoneta, Israel's S.F.-based consul general, at an Oct. 8 gathering at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco in support of Israel, which was infiltrated and attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

In S.F., hundreds join urgent gathering to support Israel at war

Hundreds of attendees packed the main sanctuary and balcony at Congregation Sherith Israel on Sunday as the Jewish community held a major solidarity event for Israel. Similar events are being held across the Bay Area, in Marin, Contra Costa, the Peninsula and South Bay.

Members of other congregations across the city — among them Sha’ar Zahav, Emanu-El and Beth Sholom — converged on the San Francisco synagogue. Israeli-born attendees, families with children, heads of Jewish organizations, elected officials and clergy from throughout the city came together to share their grief.

Any political differences were swept aside as those who spoke urged complete unity in support of Israel as it continued to battle Hamas terrorists who had invaded the country and killed hundreds of civilians.

The mood was somber, as speaker after speaker rose to talk of unity in support of the Jewish state and shared stories of people they knew who have been murdered or taken hostage since Saturday morning’s shocking attack.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke of a friend visiting Israel whose daughter, son-in-law and infant child had been killed in their home, while the couple’s other children hid in a closet. Joy Sisisky, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, said that prominent peace activist Vivian Silver, 75 and the head of a nonprofit that is a Federation grantee, was kidnapped Saturday from her home in Kibbutz Be’eri and remains missing.

“This day is supposed to be a celebration of our journey to the Promised Land,” said Sherith Israel Senior Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf, speaking of the holiday of Simchat Torah. “But this morning we are not celebrating. We are not dancing.”

Noting that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before becoming one people in the land of Israel, she said, “Today we stand together as one people with a deep love for the modern State of Israel.”

“This is a time to grieve,” said Tye Gregory, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, which along with the Federation and the San Francisco Interfaith Council co-sponsored the event. “There are those of you in this room who have lost family, friends. This is a time for soul-searching, for reflection. How could this happen?”

People came from throughout the community to sit together in sorrow.

“How could I not be here?” said Carol Krim, who was visiting from Connecticut to see her granddaughter, who sat beside her in the pew.

Elliott Kopstein and his 13-year-old daughter Jamie said they showed up to support the beleaguered country they both love. Jamie celebrated her bat mitzvah in Israel last summer. “It’s crazy to hear what’s happening  there just a few months later,” she said quietly.

“We felt we needed to be together in community,” her father added.

The event also drew people from outside the Jewish community. Judy Montoya arrived straight from her Lutheran church service in Novato, where fellow churchgoers expressed support for Israel’s security. “I let them know I was coming here, and they all said they would be praying for Israel,” she told J. “That’s why I’m here. If it were not for this faith, I wouldn’t have mine.”

S.F. Mayor London Breed talked about her recent trip to Israel with the JCRC in May to celebrate 50 years of a sister city relationship with Haifa. She recalled hearing rockets coming into Israel during that visit, and the shock she felt realizing that Israelis live under constant threat.

“Our hearts are heavy today and filled with so much sadness,” she said. “This is not of God. God is love. We stand with the people of Israel as they continue to do everything they can to defend themselves.”

“The world cannot look away from what has happened,” Gregory told the crowd. Recalling how the “world turned against Israel” in May 2021 after the country retaliated against Gaza for sustained Hamas rocket attacks, he said the Jewish community must not let that happen again.

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“In the days ahead, we have a call to action,” he said. “First, to give back. Equally important is community education — let’s remind the world what these people have done and are still doing.

“We need to be ready, and we need to be resilient,” he added. “Let us show the world what our Jewish values teach us.”

Marco Sermoneta, Israel’s S.F.-based consul general to the Pacific Northwest, told the crowd that Israel expects a long, hard war, and expressed his appreciation for the community event. “Thank you my brothers and sisters — because that’s what you are — for coming here today,” he said. “We at the consulate feel your love as we fight.”

Describing the atrocities being committed by Hamas against civilians, Sermoneta said that Israel “has suffered a heavy blow, but we shall prevail. We have no other option.”

Appealing to the need for unity, he implored the crowd to watch the videos of Israelis being taken hostage, to read the news, no matter how distressing.

“Do not turn your gaze away,” Sermoneta declared. “This is not the time for ifs or buts. This is the time to stand with Israel, to push back against the evil in our streets.”

Pelosi noted that there is “total bipartisan unity in Congress in support of what we need to do, diplomatically, financially and militarily, to support our friends, the Israelis,” a comment that generated thunderous applause.

Describing how infants, the disabled and elderly people had been shot and taken hostage, she said, “This is outside the circle of civilized human behavior, and is totally to be condemned. Our different approaches [to Mideast peace] need to be put aside to say, in every way, we stand with Israel.”

Several speakers used the occasion to encourage follow-up action. “I urge you to do your part in the coming days, as philanthropists, educators, ambassadors,” Sisisky said, pointing out that the Federation has partnered with the Jewish Federations of North America to open a national emergency fund for aid to Israel.

“Many of you in this room were builders of the State of Israel,” she continued. “Let us continue to show our love and support for Israel and the people of Israel.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].