Columbia’s Jewish community gathered outside of the Anne Frank Center on USC’s campus for a candlelight vigil Oct. 17 (Photos by Caroline Evans/Carolina News and Reporter)

Jewish leaders in Columbia are calling for unity and prayer as they continue to feel the effects of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorism attack in Israel.

Hamas’ attack on occupants of the Gaza Strip in Israel happened more than 6,000 miles away from Columbia. But it was deeply felt by some in the Midlands.

“It’s been really hard,” said Rabbi Erik Uriarte of the Tree of Life Congregation of the attack, the large-scale hostage taking and the ongoing battles. “I don’t think that I could make up any other words other than that it’s been really hard. I mean, you’re talking about the largest number of Jewish civilians of all ages killed in a day since the Holocaust.”

The devastation and fear were felt everywhere, including on the University of South Carolina campus, especially perhaps on Oct. 13, when Hamas had called for a Day of Rage.

“I know here on campus, there were students who did report that they were afraid to walk to class today,” said Rabbi Meir Muller, an associate professor in USC’s College of Education.

Many members of Columbia’s Jewish community, including Rabbi Sruly Epstein of USC’s Rohr Chabad organization, have family abroad. Epstein’s brother is serving in the Israeli army.

The attacks first broke out during a Jewish holiday when the use of electronic devices is not allowed. This added a layer of fear for Epstein.

“We weren’t able to get any reassurance that he was OK until after the holiday, when I was finally able to get in touch with him, and he was fine – well, I mean fine physically,” Epstein said.

Other members of the Jewish community have confided in their rabbi, voicing their fear that family members had been lost. 

“It causes great fear and anxiety,” said Rabbi Jonathan Case of the Beth Shalom Synagogue. “What has happened to my brother? What has happened to my sister? What has happened to my friend? We have members of the congregation who have disappeared or are part of those 190 people or so that Hamas abducted and are holding hostage. We’re terrified about what has happened to them and what is happening to them.”

Amid the chaos and uncertainty, Jewish leaders of Columbia are encouraging those affected to turn inward.

“Stay strong, stay safe,” Muller said. “Talk about it with others.”

Muller also wanted to advise people to look for the good happening in Israel, the helpers who in times of turmoil are doing whatever they can to be of service.

“Reach out and find comfort and solidarity and community,” Uriate said.

Members of his congregation have been doing just that.

On Oct. 13, “despite some people being very concerned about coming here physically, we still had people joining us online, and we had one of the largest Shabbat gatherings we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “And I know that part of it was this need for us to come together and say, like, ‘This is our space. And this is where we can feel safe and comfortable and have that mutual sense of comfort.'”

Even if someone has not been to a service in awhile, Epstein wants them to know that now is the time to get involved again.

“Well, as a rabbi, my default is to try to encourage people to turn inward,” Epstein said. “Sometimes it can be helpful to reconnect with their inner spirit. You know, they haven’t been to synagogue for a while, maybe pop in, say a prayer, light Shabbat candles.”

Distance doesn’t affect impact, he said.

“I think that our real connection to each other is a spiritual one,” Epstein said. “And therefore, you know, while we’re stuck here, thousands of miles away from being able to enlist and actually fight for our country, there’s still a lot we can do. We can do a tremendous amount spiritually to be there for our brothers and sisters in the land of Israel and to be there for each other here in this community.”

Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, the only Jewish member of South Carolina’s state legislature, said she has felt nothing but support following the attacks.

“I am fortunate that we have a very strong Jewish community because it’s a very small Jewish community, but I think this brought us even closer, the tragedy,” Bernstein said. “It’s not even just the Jewish community. I’m also proud of the community at large, how we’ve all come together, because it really is good versus evil. It’s unfortunate that you have to experience tragedy to come together.”

And coming together, Case said is the key to surviving.

“We shall be strong, and we are united,” Case said. “No matter what a person’s level of understanding or observance or belief is, we are all Jewish people united by common ancestry, Jewish history and a common present and a common future. So, we will get through this.”

A young girl holds a candle at the vigil Oct. 17.

Audio clip: Area rabbis’ advice to the Jewish community