Echoes of War on the East Side

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It is August 9, the fifth Sabbath since Israel’s Operation Protective Edge began, and Azi Schwartz, the hazzan (cantor) of the Park Avenue Synagogue, stood before the congregation and gave voice to traditional Jewish prayers for shalom – peace.

Schwartz has been part of the Upper East Side community for almost a decade. “It’s very difficult to be here and listen to what’s going on in Israel,” Schwartz said. “My nephew has been in Gaza for the last month, and one of my best friends is an officer. Communication is difficult. We message through another friend, so we do hear from him. Cell phones are off.”

Like many with connections to the Middle East, Schwartz and his wife Noa, a doctor and reserve officer, are “monitoring the news all the time. Every time we hear about something happening, our hearts stop. It’s difficult and scary.” He is concerned about family members, especially the elderly and the very young. His grandmother, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, lives in Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city frequently targeted by Hamas rockets.

She has refused to leave her own own home, despite its lack of a safe room. “It’s very difficult for her to walk,” notes the cantor. “Everyone feels the fear of war in a different way.”

“There is not much we can do from here, other than pray for our families,” said Schwartz, whose family is traveling to Israel next week.

They will stay with another family near Tel Aviv. “We’ve talked about and explained the sirens as much as possible,” he said. “Our children have lots of cousins. They know exactly what it means.”

Telephone contact has become important as East Siders try to stay in touch with family and friends. I am the director of the Friends of the Joseph Bau Museum, a small Tel Aviv institution honoring the works of the artist who worked with Oskar Schindler. The museum is based in an older building near Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. The structure has no “safe room” and may are afraid to visit.

I make an early-morning call every day. We’re in the midst of planning for a New York exhibit in January with much work to be done. The time difference between New York and Tel Aviv is six hours. But even without an alarm, I am awake at about 4 a.m. every day just to check in.

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