The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that continues to shake the world. During the October 7 invasion by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people, Israel has said that about 240 hostages were taken by the terrorist group.

            Shabbat festivities this week are especially somber, as six weeks have passed since the hostages were initially taken. The sheer amount of people have been displayed around the world with empty Shabbat tables. Instead of guests in the chairs, pictures of the hostages are fixed in their places. The display has been dubbed “the Saddest Shabbat Table in the World.”

            Smithtown set up their own empty Shabbat table on the lawn in front of the H. Lee Dennison building in Hauppauge near Veterans Memorial Highway on Friday and Saturday evenings last week. Hundreds gathered in the cold to witness the display, hear the names read of some of the hostages, hear speeches from local Jewish religious leaders, and pray and have service for the victims.

            However, despite the somber nature of the event and the last six weeks, the vigil also served as something as a rally, as the speakers ensured that the tables displayed in Smithtown and around the world, as well as the accompanying calls and prayers for hope and peace, are displays of solidarity and strength in the face of persecution and evil.

            The services were organized by Rona Kugler-Bode and Sharon Penn. Kugler-Bode discussed with The Messenger how the event came together.

            “The co-organizers did not know each other until about two weeks ago and did not meet in person until a couple of days before the display,” says Kugler-Bode. “My husband saw a flyer at the Suffolk Young Jewish Community Center (Suffolk-Y JCC) that Sharon was providing lawn signs for donations to go to Moshav Netiv HaAsara in Israel, which was attacked on October 7. I contacted her to purchase some lawn signs and we started testing about how helpless we have felt since the attacks. We came up with the idea of bringing the Empty Shabbat Table display to Suffolk County, but it needed to be in a high visibility area. I started making telephone calls, starting with Officer Tom Joy of the Asian Jade Society, the event came together. All the organizations involved were all so helpful and generous. We are also extremely grateful for the support and assistance of the Suffolk County Police Department whose presence helped to make this run seamlessly.”

            “I am sure there is not one person here who has not gone through a myriad of emotions these last six weeks,” said Kugler-Bode at Saturday night’s vigil. “We need to do everything we can to bring the hostages home now.”

Ronen and Orna Neutra, Omers parents, give their testimony

            Two speakers at the event highlighted the intimate connection Long Island has to the attacks, as one of the hostages calls Plainview home. Omer Neutra, 21, decided to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after spending a gap year in Israel in 2020, suspending his plans to study at Binghamton University upstate. Omer’s parents, Ronen and Orna, described the circumstances of his captivity and their plight to reconnect with their son. Omer was fighting Hamas forces in a tank with other IDF servicemembers when their vehicle was compromised and they were taken into Gaza.

            “It’s been six weeks since our lives turned upside-down,” said Omer’s father, Ronen. “Omer is a great friend and guy who brings everyone together.”

            “In some ways, Omer grew up like any other kid on Long Island,” said Omer’s mother, Orna. “He’s crazy about sports, he loves basketball, he was the captain of his high school teams, and very involved in his youth group. But he’s also a dual-citizen of both Israel and the United States, and we raised him with deep connections with both places. During his gap year in Israel, he felt very connected to the communities and diverse groups there. When it came the time for him to come back to the United States, he decided that what he really needed to do is join the IDF.”

            Both of Omer’s parents are descendants of Holocaust survivors, which they say contributed to Omer’s dedication to keeping Israel strong for Israelis and all Jewish people by serving and protecting the country.

            Omer’s parents recently spoke in front of nearly 300,000 people in Washington, but they say the numbers don’t compare to the sense of community and support they have at home on Long Island. They have met with members of the state legislature and Congress regarding the negotiations to rescue the hostages.

            “The clock continues to tick, but not in our favor,” said Ronen. “We appreciate your support and we ask you to call your representatives and keep the hostages in the public eye until we get them home.”

            Ronen and Orna left for Israel following the service to meet with government officials, hostages’ families, and the family they have in Israel.

            “Our hope is to bring some good news on our way back.”

Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center performed the Havdalah service and Rabbi Yakov Saacks of the Chai Center of Dix Hills led the prayers for Israel.

During the Friday night service, Rabbi Alan C. Stein of Temple Beth Chai in Hauppauge led Kabbalat Shabbat with Cantor Stephen Stein.

Commack High School students Rebecca Cole, 11th grade and board member of the Hebrew Culture Club, and Eli Penn, 11th grade, shared the readings of the names of some of the hostages. The Friday night readings were delivered by Commack High School students Eli Penn, Michael Wagner, 9th grade, and Abby Wynn, 11th grade.

The Friday night service also saw Alan Richter of the Suffolk Jewish Advisory Board address the audience and give a speech about unity.

The Messenger sends our prayers and condolences to the families of the hostages, and we hope the conflict is swiftly resolved and the hostages return home safely.

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Matt Meduri serves as the Editor in Chief of the Messenger Papers and writer of America the Beautiful and This Week Today columns. As a graduate of St. Joseph's University, Matt has been working in the political journalism field for over 5 years. He is a multi-instrumentalist, enjoys cooking and writing his own recipes, and traveling throughout the United States including Guam.