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An interfaith community vigil in Ukraine was held via Zoom on Monday, March 14, with a variety of Pinellas County clergy offering prayers and songs for peace and a presentation on aid to citizens fleeing the Russian invasion.
The Jewish Federation of Florida’s Gulf Coast sponsored the prayer vigil with the support of the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis.
The bulk of the participants were from the local Jewish community. Rabbi Danielle Upbin, the Federation’s community educator and associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, was the driving force behind the hastily organized program, reflecting the desire to respond spiritually to the quickly escalating war.
In introducing the first speaker, Federation Executive Director Maxine Kaufman said the online gathering, which attracted viewers on 70 Zoom screens, was being held for two reasons:
“First, we gather with prayers and ask for God’s assistance to help the Ukrainian people, to bring peace to the world and this war-stricken region,” Kaufman said, “Second – to update us on what is happening on the ground in Ukraine and how the dollars donated for this emergency crisis are being and will be used …
Shani Turel, a Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) representative, gave an update on the actions taken by the agency in Ukraine. JAFI has set up centers at the Ukrainian borders in Hungary, Moldova, Poland, and Romania. There, volunteers are providing aid to Ukrainians interested in escaping to Israel. “Since the beginning of this war, over 18 days, 28,000 calls have been made to these centers,” Turel said.
Rabbi Philip Weintraub, leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg and the president of the Pinellas Board of Rabbis, likened the war in Ukraine to Purim, which was celebrated later in the week, and tells the story of how Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai saved the Jews living in Persia from the murderous scheming of Haman.
“The Russian invasion is a reminder of how one person’s impetus for violence can lead to oppression, hate, and pain,” he said. “And I hope that we see the end of Haman. Not just in the time of Purim, not just in Persia, but in all times, and in all places.”
Rabbi Weintraub noted that Ukraine was once a hub of modern Jewry. “It’s sad to see families and people leave a home, a life, that they must leave behind. May the one who brings peace to one, bring peace to all people, and that we soon see peace in this world.”
Rabbi Matt Berger of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor reminded the vigil’s viewers that thousands of Jews remaining in Ukraine are survivors or descendants of victims of the Holocaust. “For their sake we say ‘Never Again’ will the world stand idly by.”
Pastor Bob Hill of Hope Presbyterian Church asked those assembled to also pray for Russian President Vladimir Putin and those who have instigated the violence. “We are heartbroken there is still such hate and violence in the world.” he said. “We pray for change of heart.”
Cantor Jonathan Schultz of Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg sang “Shalom Ra’av,” a blessing for abundant peace, and Rabbi David Weizman of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater recited a prayer for peace between nations.
A photograph of Earth from space was shared by Rev. Dr. Leddy Hammock of Unity Church of Clearwater. The image, the first photograph of Earth from space, she said, represented a hope for humanity to recognize that peace and love are the only ways to exist on Earth. Rev. Leddy quoted Peace Pilgrim, a walking activist of the 1960s, “We are all cells in the same body of humanity. The way of peace is the way of love. Love is the greatest power on earth.”
Rabbi Upbin told the online gathering that while prayers have their place, “participating only in spiritual action is not enough.” She urged the group to act by donating to organizations like JAFI.
Turel spoke of JAFI’s work on the ground, reuniting families. At a border center run by JAFI, halfsisters who had never met found one another while waiting for their flight to Israel.
Many Ukrainians are not so lucky as the sisters who made it to safety. Homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship have been destroyed by Russian bombs and shelling.
Local vocal artist Fred Johnson, a sacred chanter and advocate of the healing power of music, offered a chant that “the energy of our knowingness repel evil and bring peace.”
Other Jewish clergy who participated were: Rabbi Joshua Lobel and Cantor Katie Oringel, both of Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater; and Rabbi Jenn Mangold and Joyce Liu, cantorial soloist, both of Temple Beth El in St. Petersburg. Additional participants were: Sue Riley, Unity Church minister of music; and Kamran Rouhani, Bahai faith leader of Garden of Rivdan, Clearwater.
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