Aspen event shows support, solidarity for Israel and Jewish community
While the entire world continues to watch closely as the Israel-Hamas war proceeds in Gaza, triggered by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that claimed the lives of more than 1,400 Israelis and took roughly 240 others hostage, valley residents Erika and Rob Leavitt watch much closer.
Erika is the cousin of Rachel Polin, the mother of 23-year-old Israeli-American Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who is believed to have been taken hostage while attending an outdoor music festival in the southern Israeli kibbutz of Re’im, near the Gaza Strip.
Erika shared her family’s story of pain and anguish to a crowd of over 100 people on Thursday evening during an Aspen Stands with Israel solidarity event held in Gondola Plaza.
“I’m here to tell you the war in Israel has local impact,” she said. “From eyewitness accounts, we know that Hersh and his best friend Aner (Shapira) ran along with 27 other people into a bomb shelter near the festival. Most of the music loving youth are now dead. The few survivors were saved by Aner, an Israel Defense Forces soldier, who with his bare hands threw seven grenades out of the bomb shelter. Four more exploded inside the bomb shelter. When Aner’s body was found days later, there was still a grenade in his hand.”
Erika went on to explain that, based on additional witnesses, her cousin Hersh lost his left arm in the attack but, due to his medical training, was able to tourniquet himself. He was seen being forced into a pickup truck with two others, his last known point of contact was a ping from his cell phone inside Gaza.
“My cousin Rachel and her husband John do not know if he has gotten medical attention; they don’t even know if he’s alive or dead,” she said. “They sit with this suffocating uncertainty every second of every day for the last 34 days. This is a global problem – imagine your own child or parent, or even yourself, buried under ground for 34 days.”
Erika closed by sharing words from Hersh’s mother and father they shared with her via a Zoom call prior to the event. They asked Thursday’s crowd to, “not take our foot off the gas until all 240 hostages are released and home safely.”
Thursday also marked the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi soldiers vandalized synagogues, Jewish homes, and Jewish-owned businesses throughout Germany.
The event began with images of those taken hostage and those who were killed in the attack displayed on screens. Aspen’s Rabbi Mendel Mintz of the Chabad Jewish Community Center then gave powerful opening remarks regarding the long and violent history Israel has experienced.
“Seeing this large of a turnout, not just me, it makes me and every other person within our Jewish community deeply touched,” he said. “It’s heartwarming, inspiring, the love that we feel tonight, the warmth, the care, the embrace, the hug is tremendous, and something we will never forget. It tells us how great of a community this is and how great the people are of this valley.”
Crossroads Church Pastor Steve Woodrow followed by expressing solidarity with Israel and spoke of “grieving for the past” with regard to the symbol of the cross having been historically a sign of animosity and hatred towards Jews.
“I want to say unequivocally tonight that those past events and any present hostility of any so-called Christian has nothing to do with the message of Christ or the Christian church at all,” he said. “It is because of Israel that the church exists. We worship the God of Israel, and we stand with you, and we are friends.”
Mayor Torre gave emotional words in thanking Rabbi Mintz for his leadership, as well as expressing his support for Aspen’s Jewish community members and the support of Israel’s “pursuit for place and peace.”
“I’m here today with a heavy heart and sadness but also full of hope in looking around at this event – this gives me hope,” Torre said. “I’m also here to raise awareness and fight against antisemitism, prejudice, and bias. They have no place in this community or any community … I stand here today with my brethren of various faiths, nationalities, and histories; we may have differences, but we are not divided. In our desire for unpersecuted lives and peace, we are united.”
Rabbi Sima Oster of the Aspen Jewish Congregation shared a prayer for “our shared country” that she said serves as a reminder that people “do not dwell alone as individuals or as a people.” She added that praying for the United States reflects a recognition that Jewish welfare is “bound up with that of the diverse communities” they reside.
“We are all partners in building a peaceful society where diversity is celebrated and respected,” she said. “Our Roaring Fork Valley community does just that. At the same time, we celebrate both diversity and solidarity; I feel blessed and honored to be among you.”
Aspen Council Member Bill Guth also spoke to Thursday’s crowd, thanking, on behalf of his Jewish community, the many non-Jewish friends who were showing their solidarity by standing with them. In addition to stressing the importance of never tolerating hate and bias, he also made mention of the events that transpired during an Oct. 30 City Council meeting, where it was voted 3-2 to not hang the Israeli flag from Aspen’s former city hall building, also known as the Armory building.
“I bring this up not to shame anyone or recant these events but to share with you how difficult this has been for me and my family, and I’m sure many of you,” he said. “To experience firsthand and in real time in our Aspen community of all places. What happened then proves we cannot back down from hate and bias in our community or anywhere … This is America, and this is Aspen – let us not forget we stand for acceptance, tolerance, love, and community.
Not all in attendance during Thursday’s event were entirely of the same mindset. Aspen resident Will Hodges led a small crowd on the street behind Gondola Plaza calling for a ceasefire in Israel, sparking some anger from those who were present to show alliance with Israel and the right to defend itself.
“We’re horrified at the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza. The world’s watched for a month the most advanced military in the world systematically bomb 2.3 million innocent Palestinians living under a 16-year blockade,” he said. “We’re not here to protest this solidarity with Israel event; we only wish to add something to the conversation.”
To reach Jonson Kuhn, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A crowd of over 100 people showed up to show their support for the Jewish community as well as those being held captive in the Gaza Strip during Thursday’s Aspen Stands with Israel solidarity event in Gondola Plaza.