Jewish students at the University of Florida attend events at Chabad UF to celebrate their culture, whether it be for Shabbat services or for the High Holy Days Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
But last week, they were there for a different reason: to mourn the loss of those affected by the violence between Israel and Hamas and to pray for the Israel Defense Forces soldiers fighting on the front lines.
“We want to recite the entire book of Psalms as a community,” said Rabbi Aaron Notik of Chabad UF as he splits the Tehillim chapters with the Jewish UF students. “The Tehillim is divided through all the days of the month. So, the number you are assigned, find [in] your Tehillim where it says that day.”
Israel may be thousands of miles away, but for the Jewish community in Gainesville and UF, it’s close to home. Some UF students are IDF reservists who will be sent to fight and defend their homeland.
“They [the IDF] called me Saturday morning from [an] Israeli number, and they told me ‘You have two hours to be in the base,’” said Noam Levi, a 22-year-old business student from Oranit, just east of Tel Aviv. “They [continue to] keep in touch with me. I’m hoping [to leave] soon because there is a lot of mess with the flights to Israel with Ben Gurion Airport.”
Since the deadly Hamas attacks on Israeli citizens in Southern Israel, students like Levi and philosophy and biology student Shahar Katz, an exchange student and reservist from Jerusalem, could only watch the news and hope their friends and families were alright.
“I started scrolling through the news, and I realized slowly what was happening,” Katz said. “It was the entire weekend, just looking through the feed, trying to understand what is going on.”
He said what is happening in his home country has been hard on him, but his teachers have been supportive and flexible.
“My professors were concerned,” Katz said. “They asked for the safety of my family, how I am doing, and they said if I needed anything — in terms of more time, missing classes — they’ll be absolutely fine with it.”
For both reservists, getting the call to serve their country is nothing new, but what is new is putting their education on hold. For Levi, this is especially difficult.
“I really like UF, so far,” Levi said. “This is an amazing place, great university. The culture of UF, the football games were nothing like I have ever seen before. So I’m kind of sad that it had to stop freshman year.”
But for Levi, like Katz, school is a small priority right now.
“To be honest, I can’t even concentrate in school right now,” Levi said. “It’s so minority of what’s going on in Israel. So I kind of didn’t pay attention to school these days.”
As the reservists continue to wait, they look to still make a difference, even from far away.
“Ever since last week, I’ve been trying to find ways to help people,” Katz said. “I think there is a lot of important work to do about explaining the situation, explaining the conflict.”
Thousands of civilians have already been killed in the fighting according to Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Over 200 hostages are being held in Gaza according to a Hamas spokesperson.
“My heart has been aching to go back to Israel and help with whatever I can,” Katz said. “I want to help the people who have suffered so much.”