A path of peace

A path of peace

Rabbis for World Central Kitchen raises funds to honor the dead aid workers

Palestinian workers move the bodies of the World Central Kitchen volunteers who were killed by an Israeli airstrike. (Mohammed/Flash90)
Palestinian workers move the bodies of the World Central Kitchen volunteers who were killed by an Israeli airstrike. (Mohammed/Flash90)

Like most Jews around the world, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, who leads Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, has been devastated by October 7 and the six months of nearly unremittingly grim reports from Israel and Gaza that have followed the barbaric attack.

When the IDF mistakenly but tragically and disastrously killed seven aid workers in clearly marked vehicles bringing food into Gaza for the international humanitarian group World Central Kitchen — a group that had brought warm meals to Israel in the aftermath of October 7, mourned with Israelis, and whose founder and leader, Jose Andres, responded to the deaths not with invective but with sorrow and the plea that “Israel is better than the way this war is being waged” — Rabbi Orenstein decided that she had to do something.

She set up a fundraising campaign, Rabbis for World Central Kitchen, that has raised more than $60,000 between April 2 and April 8.

“I think that despite all the sorrow, despite all the fraught conversations about the war, most American Jews and most American rabbis affirm two things very strongly and simultaneously,” she said.

“We affirm that Israel has a right — and a duty — to defend itself, that Hamas is the aggressor in the war, that it is not a tenable partner for peace negotiations in the long term, and it can’t be trusted with supervision of a Palestinian territory or state.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein

“At the same time, we affirm and believe that the tragic deaths of the World Central Kitchen workers is a source of great sorrow and heartbreak. We are concerned with the reputation of Israel around the world. We regret the loss of life in Gaza — especially of children — and we want to see civilians fed whenever they are hungry.

“I think that most American Jews agree on these two things, even when we don’t agree on policy, or on what happens on the day after, or what the best military prosecution of the war should be. There is so much to disagree on, but we agree on the principles, and this agreement isn’t expressed enough in the media.

“When the World Central Kitchen tragedy happened, I felt terrible sorrow, and I wanted to convey to whoever could hear me, in my little corner of New Jersey, that the Jewish tradition honors the mitzvah of feeding the hungry, and that we want to do everything possible to protect the people who are doing that mitzvah.”

Rabbi Orenstein — perhaps coincidentally, more likely not at all coincidentally, given what’s going on in the world — had just started to teach a course about hope. “I’ve been immersed in the subject of hope since October 7,” she said. “So I think that some of my own curriculum penetrated. Instead of just sitting and crying that day, I started to think about how I could find allies, gain support, express my values, and use my agency, even in these negative and uncertain circumstances.

“So I wrote a letter to my colleagues. I started sending it individually, to rabbis I know, and to listservs. The first miracle of this project was that I was able to master the technology to create a fundraising page — I am not known for my technical prowess, but I managed not to rely on my teenage children but to do it myself.”

Palestinians stand next to a vehicle where the World Central Kitchen volunteers died.
(Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Once she’d figured out how to set up her fundraising page, Rabbi Orenstein’s next task was to figure out what goal to set. “The first thought I had was $100,000 but I didn’t want to make it impossible. I thought I should make it be a stretch, but a reasonable one. So I set it for $18,000 — of course it’s 18 for chai, life — and within 24 hours I’d exceeded it.” So she doubled the amount, to $36,000, and the next day that also was reached and passed. “Now I have set the goal for $72,000,” and she’s almost there.

“This confirmed my supposition — that people are holding these twin truths simultaneously, and they are looking for a way to express them.”

Although the appeal was addressed first to rabbis, it’s not aimed only at them. “You don’t have to be a rabbi to donate,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “You don’t have to be clergy. You don’t even have to be Jewish — but I used the symbol of an Israeli flag on the page, because I wanted to make the statement that we are doing this as Jews, and as Zionists.

“Some people have responded to me by questioning why we should dedicate tzedakah here, while there are so many needs within Israel. Don’t we know that we have to support our brothers and sisters in Israel first? We have to take care of Jews first.

“My answer is that this is not either/or. I donate to Israel. I am an advocate for displaced and hungry people in Israel — as World Central Kitchen has been.

“But the Talmud says that Jews should continue to donate and support non-Jewish causes, for the sake of the path of peace. Sometimes that is interpreted as a lesser reason, a kind of concession — but I think that these days, anything that contributes to the paths of peace is supremely important.”

As she put it on her fundraising page, “When you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy souls who are famished, then your light will shine in darkness….”

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