In Precious Hours Beyond the Headlines | Shalom Austin

In Precious Hours Beyond the Headlines

The Jewish Outlook

Mar 1, 2024

A war memorial in Ukraine. Credit: Rabbi Neil Blumofe

By Rachel Cottle

In early November 2023, closely following the heels of the October 7 attack, Neil Blumofe, senior Rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, traveled to Israel to lend what humanitarian assistance and support he could to civilians suffering and under siege. This past January 2024, he made another special trip with a similar purpose– this time, to Ukraine.

During his trip to Israel, rather than take part in a specific mission that, while meaningful, would leave little space for close fellowship, Rabbi Blumofe chose to commiserate more deeply with the people he encountered there. One friend of his joked, “You are responding to the calls of not just to stand with Israel, but to do what we really need, which is to sit with Israel, have a cup of coffee with us, and to get to know us in precious hours beyond the headlines.”

In Ukraine, Rabbi Blumofe accompanied the Israel-based humanitarian organization SmartAID to visit several different locations, including Lviv, Kyiv and Kharkiv, recounting calmly in reels on Facebook the terror and destruction that had befallen each of them since 2022, and more recently.

There is no denying the bleak despair that accompanies and surrounds these two countries. As Rabbi Blumofe remarked in a Facebook reel during which he toured a battle site in Ukraine just north of Kyiv, “The past is really the present.” It seems that to escape the mistakes and prejudices of the past is impossible, because they resurface again and again in a cycle that seems inevitable.

It’s important to acknowledge all of this horror in order to live presently in the world– yet, people cannot afford to be bogged down by despair and hopelessness, because hopelessness makes people useless. The trips that Rabbi Blumofe took to Israel and Ukraine matter because they brought the suffering from “over there somewhere,” to the present community right here in Austin, Texas. To engage when it seems hopeless, to put one’s voice into the thunderous clamor saturated with anti-Israel and anti-Ukraine sentiment, to remind those living in comparatively peaceful luxury that war still exists for their neighbors, is something that must be done continually by those who wish to practice tikkun olam (repairing the world). It is impossible to heal if one will not look at what is damaged. During Rabbi Blumofe’s d’var Torah delivered on the Shabbat returning from his trip to Ukraine, he recalled speaking with several Ukranians and Israelis about the state of their respective governments, “and then they all looked at me, with the start of election season, in America. All of us were conscious at some level of living in places that once were, and were no longer.”

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