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For Jackson Hole's Jewish community, Israel-Hamas war hits close to home

JACKSON — What Idith Almog saw in 1973 pales in comparison to what she saw Saturday morning.

Fifty years ago, when war broke out between Israel and Arab states on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, more than 2,600 Israelis and over 15,000 Arabs died. Almog was 18 years old.

“That was over three weeks, and that was soldiers,” said Almog. “Here we’re talking about one day. They were women, and old, and babies and children. It’s like the Holocaust.”

Almog, who is Jewish and Israeli, lives in Jackson Hole.

But on Saturday, she was at her family’s apartment in Tel Aviv, Israel, when Hamas gunmen crossed the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, attacking a music festival and small villages known as kibbutzim. The militant group killed an estimated 1,300 people in the brutal attack, including 27 Americans.

Hamas beheaded soldiers, kidnapped elderly people and killed and burned infants, according to videos posted by Hamas and, later, by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As many as 150 Israelis may have been taken hostage, though people of other nationalities are likely among them, including Americans.

“The shock, the absolute devastation is beyond words,” Almog said.

In response, Israel has declared war on Hamas and bombed the Gaza Strip, killing more than 1,500 Palestinians. Some Palestinians have described the bombing as indiscriminate.

Netanyahu and Israeli military officials have called for removing Hamas from power in Gaza, and for capturing or killing its leaders. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is Jewish and was in Israel on Thursday, has called for restraint, saying that how Israel responds matters. President Biden has declared Hamas’ attack “pure, unadulterated evil.”

Meanwhile, the growing war is impacting Jewish community members in and from Jackson Hole.

If Jewish Jacksonites don’t know someone killed or abducted Saturday morning, many know people whose friends and family members have disappeared or were killed. Almog’s son’s co-worker and his co-worker’s wife went to the festival in the desert and disappeared. On Thursday morning, the wife’s body was identified. Almog’s nephew has been called into military service.

“Everyone knows someone and everyone’s pretty unmoored right now,” said Mary Grossman, executive director of the Jackson Hole Jewish Community.

Watching Americans unpack the violence in Israel and Gaza has also unearthed a “very complicated set of emotions,” Grossman said. It has been challenging for her to see friends’ social media posts blaming Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza for Saturday’s violence. Instead, she believes people should be “unambiguously condemning terrorism.”

Almog said she is critical of the Netanyahu regime. Still, she thinks the Israeli government’s “political and diplomatic failures” are “immaterial and unrelated.”

“It’s a different scale,” she said of Hamas’ Saturday attack on civilians. “We’re talking about something that is beyond right and wrong. It’s a crime against humanity.”

On Monday, Chabad Lubavitch of Wyoming and the Jackson Hole Jewish Community hosted a prayer vigil and rally in support of Israel.

“Hatred has no place in humanity,” Chabad Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn said Monday night before leading the 70-person crowd to the Town Square. “Antisemitism has no place anywhere in the world. But our response to antisemitism, our response to death and destruction, is one of kindness, strength, resilience and future, optimistic thinking.”

The Jewish organizations called on community members to support groups such as United Hatzalah, which is providing medical supplies in Israel. The group has raised $16,000 in Wyoming.

Local officials have pledged support to the valley’s Jewish community.

“I can imagine the pain within your communities of what’s happened in the last few days,” said Arne Jorgensen, a Jackson town councilor who is not Jewish but grew up in Jackson.

“This community is much richer. It’s more resilient. It’s a better place than the one I grew up in. And that’s due in part to the fact that we have more diversity in our community.”

Even as the United States organizes flights to get American citizens out of Israel, Almog is staying put. On Thursday evening, Grossman was flying from Berlin to Tel Aviv to help in whatever way she can. She has connections to people involved in Israel’s media.

“I’d like to go help make sure the world knows what’s going on,” Grossman said.

This story was published on October 13, 2023.