In a Brooklyn Synagogue, a Rare Space to Grieve Both Palestinians and Israelis

NEW YORK – Over the last seven months, there have been numerous vigils for the Israelis killed in the Hamas-led massacre of October 7. There have also been many memorials for Palestinians killed by Israel since the country launched its retaliatory assault on Gaza.

But the event on May 12 in Brooklyn was different. It was a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial service, which provided a rare chance to grieve collectively for both Palestinians and Israelis in the same room.

Over 400 New Yorkers gathered for the somber event in the ballroom of Congregation Beth Elohim on 274 Garfield Place. Audience members gathered in rows of folding chairs surrounding a stage and projector. Some people in the crowd wore the yellow ribbon pins advocating for the return of Israeli hostages, while others wore watermelon t-shirts, symbolic of Palestinian solidarity and resistance.

“When I cry I cry for both of us,” sang Israeli musician Ahinoam Nini at the start of the event, “my pain has no name.” Nini wore a purple t-shirt with a creative twist on a popular protest slogan: “From the river to the sea, only peace will set us free.” 

Her musical partner Gil Dror strummed along on the guitar, while volunteer Michael Feigenbaum accompanied them on the drums.

Nini mentioned how she and Dror performed this song while representing Israel in Eurovision in 2009, while performing alongside Palestinian-Israeli singer Mira Awad. The song, “There Must Be Another Way,” was written in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 Gaza war.

“This kind of musical contest, this kind of a war, is the only kind of war I would want to tolerate,” said Nini, speaking of Eurovision. “Some Olympic Games, Master Chef…why do we need the other kind?”  The crowd laughed, then Nini launched into another number.

From left to right: Ahinoam Nini (Noa), Gili Dror, and Michael Fiegenbaum

From left to right: Ahinoam Nini (Noa), Gili Dror, and Michael Fiegenbaum

The May event featured a screening of the 19th Israel-Palestinian Joint Memorial Day Ceremony in Jerusalem, organized by Israel-based nonprofits Combatants For Peace and The Parents’ Circle . The “American Friends” of both nonprofits organized the New York satellite event, which included a live-stream of the Jerusalem ceremony, as well as live speakers and music.

Combatants For Peace has been organizing a Joint Memorial Day Ceremony every year in Jerusalem since 2006. The event takes place on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day, and it precedes Yom Haatzmaut, the Israeli Day of Independence. It is an alternative to mainstream remembrance day ceremonies, which focus on fallen Israeli soldiers and Israeli victims of terror. 

“What makes this year different is the magnitude and catastrophe of loss since October 7th,”  said Elik Elhanan, 47, a co-founder of Combatants For Peace who spoke at the New York satellite event. He said it was important to also acknowledge the grief of Palestinians and advocate for an end to the occupation on a “very Israeli day.”

On October 7, Hamas militants invaded Israel and killed 1200 Israelis, while taking over 200 Israeli citizens and foreign internationals hostage, according to Israeli officials. Israel’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip has killed over 35,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom are non-combatant civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

A United Nations study says it has been the deadliest year for both sides of the conflict since the commission started tracking deaths in 2008. The war is ongoing. A few days before the ceremony, Israel began its invasion of Rafah: a southern coastal city in which 1.1 million Palestinian civilians are taking refuge, along with Hamas leaders. 

Elhinan lost his sister in a Hamas suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997 and grew frustrated by how the government politicized her death to justify violence against ordinary Palestinians. He says that even during times of relative calm, the Israeli government can interpret expressions of sympathy for Palestinian civilians as traitorous, or as supportive of terror.

“We’ve been exposed to threats and violence and doxing for many, many years,” said Elhinan, who served as the Israeli coordinator of Combatants For Peace after finishing his mandatory Israeli army service.

After his sister’s murder, Elhinan also became a member of The Parents Circle Families Forum: an organization that aims to connect families of Israelis and Palestinians who lost loved ones in the conflict. 

He mentioned how joint memorial ceremonies in Israel were often disrupted by “alt-right thugs” who threw rocks and sprayed urine on bereaved families attending the events.

“What is extremely different this year is that the same alt-right thugs are in the government,” said Elhanan. “The sense of threat is much more heightened,” he added.

Elik Elhanan, his baby, and Najla Said after the event. Photo: Samuel Eli Shepherd.

Elik Elhanan, his baby and Najla Said convening after the event. Photo: Samuel Eli Shepherd.

Midway through the ceremony, executive director of American Friends of Combatants For Peace, Tiffany Goodwin Van-Camp, announced that the YouTube and Facebook live-streams of the Jerusalem event had been hacked. The crowd gasped.  

Thankfully, the tech organizers found an alternative platform to stream the Jerusalem event, which included speakers from both Israel and the West Bank. But it was a reminder of just how contentious these kinds of bridge-building events can be.

Since October 7, there have been an explosion of pro-Palestine protests on college campuses across the world advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza. There have also been pro-Israel marches calling for a return of the hostages. But few demonstrations, even ones thousands of miles away from the violence, have acknowledged both nations’ pain.

“I've been in a lot of spaces where the hostages are talked about, but the Palestinians are not,” said Najla Said, 50, who spoke before Elhanan during the ceremony. “So it was really nice to be in a room where everyone was acknowledging the full reality of the situation and the pain of everybody.”

Said is an actress, writer and “by default an activist since I'm a Palestinian Lebanese American,” she joked. She is also the daughter of Edward Said: the renowned Palestinian-American scholar and professor at Columbia, who wrote about ignorance of the other in Western society.

“When we're put together, it may not always be kumbaya and happiness,” she said, speaking of organizations that bring Israelis and Palestinians into the same room. “There may be tension, there may be arguments, but that is the place from which alternative methods of moving forward can come,” she said.

After the ceremony, audience members lingered in the synagogue lobby while chatting in English and Hebrew. The organizers mentioned an upcoming Joint Israeli-Palestinian Nakba Remembrance Day ceremony later that week: a day which commemorates when over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to flee by Israeli forces during the 1948 war.

Said acknowledged that there was a stark power imbalance between how Jewish spaces usually discuss Israeli and Palestinian losses, but she nevertheless said it was important for Palestinians to acknowledge the suffering of innocent Israelis, too.

“I think we also have to get out of the habit of constantly having like the oppression Olympics or who's been hurt more or who was killed more,” said Said. “None of that matters. Pain is pain,” she said.

Teaching Vedanta Through Metaphor in The Upper East Side

NEW YORK — Each person views the world through a lens of their own understanding and experience, a Hindu swami told his followers at a February service at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

The teacher, who goes by the name Minister Swami Yuktatmananda, likened each person’s worldview to a pair of sunglasses. “If you look upon the human mind as a pair of sunglasses,” said the faith leader, “someone is wearing a set of black sunglasses, someone blue, someone green.  So we see the sun as a black sun, green, blue, et cetera.” 

This idea that we all view the world through different lenses, but are still staring at the same object, Yuktatmananda said, is the first principle of the stems of Vedanta: “The ultimate reality,” he said, was singular, no matter your approach to looking at it.

Vedanta is a branch of Hindu philosophy and religion that evolved out of the ideas of the Vedas, ancient Hindu scriptures considered to be some of the oldest religious texts in the world. While the philosophy has existed for millenia, the scriptures were explained by Ramakrishna Paramahansa to his disciple, Vivekananda, who brought his interpretation to the United States and other parts of the West in the late nineteenth century.

The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda center was established in 1933 as a Manhattan branch of a global movement centered around spreading the two men’s teachings. Years after the two namesakes passed away, their teachings lived on inside 17 East 94th Street.

“Today we are going to focus on four essential principles,” said Yuktatmananda. “These are the foundational principles of Vedenta.”

Yuktatmananda himself has been a practicing monk in India and the Himalayas since the 1980s. For nearly two decades, he has been leading students of Vedanta in Manhattan as the Minister and Spiritual Leader of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

Around 20 congregants, mostly older men and women, were scattered in the pews of the downstairs prayer room on Sunday. Yuktatmananda, dressed in a loose, saffron robe wrapped around his waist, stood at the podium. The swami spoke into the microphone, his voice projecting across the wide, windowless room. 

“Each soul is divine,” said Yuktatmananda, outlining the second principle of Vedanta. He critiqued modern culture’s focus on materialism, and how it blinds people from embracing their spiritual potential.  “He looks for lasting happiness from objects in the world, which keeps on receding from him,” he said. “There can be no bliss in the finite,” he added.

Behind Yuktatmananda was a marble bust of Ramakrishna, surrounded by vases of flowers. Above the statue were three giant, black and white photos of Ramakrishna, his wife, Sri Sarada Devi Vivekananda, and Vivekananda, all meditating, looking down at the temple’s students from high above.

Metaphors of fish and birds led Yuktatmananda to the third principle of Vedanta: “The Oneness of Existence.” Like the animal kingdom, everything in the world had its place, both good and bad, and they were all part of the natural order of life.

Finally, Yuktatmananda arrived at the fourth principle: the harmony of religions. He explained that there was only one true divine, and that different religions used different rituals, mythology, and philosophy to try to reach different interpretations of the same divine. Therefore all religions were accepted under Vedanta.

“On a circle there are an infinite number of points, but the center is one,” he concluded, explaining his faith’s universalist, pluralistic worldview.

He stressed the importance of not just tolerating, but accepting and embracing other faiths, and also not emphasizing superiority of one faith over another. “The Chrisitan is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Chirstian become a Hindu, but each must preserve his own spirituality,” he said, paraphrasing Vivakanada’s 1893 lecture at the Parliament of Religions. 

After the sermon, Yuktatmananda led his congregants in prayer, which included praise to Allah, the name Muslims use for God, and Adonai, the name for God used by Jews. To Yuktatmananda and followers of the system of Vedanta, there was nothing blasphemous about a Hindu temple praying to the gods of other faiths. 

“Religions are not contradictory; they are complementary,” said Yuktatmananda. While faiths may differ in terms of their practical dimension, Vedanta asserts that “they are different pathways to the same goal.” 

In Soho, a Puja Fit for Modern Times

In Soho, a Puja Fit for Modern Times

NEW YORK – In a pastel room in downtown Manhattan, Hindu worshippers took turns Friday evening throwing a handful of rose petals onto the statue of a god.

Ganesha, the Hindu god of prosperity, appeared regal sitting on a throne in a baby blue shrine at the center of the temple. His head, shaped like an elephant, was adorned with a gold crown, while a gold arch ran over his body, like a halo. Earlier in the evening, a priest in a white, billowy robe laid apples, bananas and grapes in front of Ganesha’s throne, and a volunteer hung a garland of purple, red and white flowers around the deity’s neck. The smell of thick incense lingered in the air.

Midway through the ceremony, the priest handed a bowl of rose petals out to worshippers, who sat cross-legged on checkered blue-and-white carpets in front of the statue. One by one, worshippers approached the shrine to shower Ganesha with the petals, eventually burying the deity in a pool of deep red. Then they took turns circling the shrine on the checkered floor. 

“Ganesh is one of the gods I most resonated with, just like, by his stories and his principles,” said Laetishea Chatterjee, 18, a freshman at the New School, after attending Friday night’s service.

Chatterjee says she has been attending the downtown Hindu temple, or mandir, about once a month since moving to Manhattan in September for her studies. While she was raised atheist in Bangalore, India, and later in Boston, Massachusetts, Chatterjee explained that attending puja at the Broome Street Ganesha Temple connects her to her family’s Hindu cultural roots.

“When I come here, and it is Ganesha puja, I just feel more connected to what’s happening than when it’s some other god,” she said.

Puja is a ritual in Hinduism that involves giving offerings of fruits, flowers and prayers to a physical manifestation of a deity.

The puja at the Ganesha temple in Soho, located at the corner of Broome Street and Crosby Street above a champagne bar, takes place on Mondays,Tuesdays and Fridays. About a dozen people attended on a recent Friday evening.

“When you do offerings and chant mantra, you’re giving the deity energy and asking for blessings in return, so the deity then blesses you in life,” explained Jaya Jaya Mara, 44, an author and TEDx speaker on spirituality who was volunteering at the temple Friday night.

“Flowers definitely represent beauty and abundance and prosperity,” she said. “Because the deity has been given life, you have to honor and appease all of the senses like you would a living being,” she later added.

Earlier in the ceremony, the priest poured a carton of Trader Joe’s organic milk into a brass pitcher, then he poured the milk over a plate in front of Ganesha as a token of love and affection. The priest also rang a bell and lit fragrant incense in front of the statue, while engaging the worshippers in call-and-response style mantras honoring the god in Sanskrit.

As worshippers walked around the shrine, a volunteer captured the procession for an Instagram livestream audience via an iPhone set up onto a tripod.

Vedant Sharma, 24, a law student at New York University who recently moved from New Delhi, said that Hindu worshippers circle the shrine to worship Ganesha from all different angles.

“It’s about surrendering yourself to the divine,” said Sharma, speaking over the phone.

Sharma had Broadway tickets to see Hamilton on Friday, so he could only catch the beginning portion of the puja ceremony in person. But the livestream, later uploaded onto the temple’s official Instagram page, provided worshippers like Sharma the opportunity to fit the ceremony into their busy New York lifestyles.

“Things settle into your daily schedule,” Sharma said. “It just brings me peace,” he added.