Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Somber ceremony for Israel's supporters draws on prayers, firsthand accounts

Alligator Contributing Writer

More than 120 people sat motionless Friday night, listening with reverence as a rabbi and a solider recounted stories of bombs and prayers for love.

Jewish students and Gainesville residents united for peace at the Lubavitch Jewish Center, which hosted a special service that evening to pray for Israeli safety.

Rabbi Berl Goldman, director of the center, organized "Crisis in the Holy Land: A Call to Action" in response to the recent surge of violence between Israel and the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah.

"We're all watching with great concern this event in the Middle East, particularly Israel," Goldman said. "The hostility has excelled, and it's continuing to escalate to a degree no one wants."

He said Israel would do anything to bring peace, even if that means taking "unilateral steps" that involve violence.

Though he hopes other nations will aid in eliminating the terrorist threat, he said Israel must protect its people and its borders.

Americans can help support Israel's goals through goodwill, Goldman said.

"Everyone wants to do something over here," he said. "The way to respond is with prayer, acts of kindness and good deeds."

As part of Friday's service, Hilla Viener, a UF student and former Israeli Defense Forces soldier, asked her husband David to read a speech she wrote about her experiences in Israel.

Viener was too emotional to read the speech herself.

When she was a resident of Israel, terrorists killed 10 of her friends.

"Wherever we stand, we will always be behind Israel in our hearts, minds and prayers," her husband said.

With about 6,500 Jewish students, UF has a larger Jewish population than any other public university in the countrry. Many students are worried about the rising conflict in the region. Some have relatives in the country, while others know friends studying abroad.

"My aunts and uncles are worried about cousins," said Lior Hirsch, a UF senior whose family is from Israel. "A lot of the people there are used to this, unfortunately."

Israel warns its citizens to avoid public transportation and specific dangerous areas, said Kim Jacobs, a UF graduate who traveled to Israel in June before the fighting erupted.

"They're just going to keep living their lives," she said of Israelis. "They're obviously freaked out. I can't imagine what they're feeling."

She felt safe in the country, she said, and was surprised by the violence when she returned home.

"I turned on the TV and saw Haifa and went, 'Oh my God,'" she said.

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