Tens of thousands participate in global Shema prayer on behalf of Israeli hostages

Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — Tens of thousands of Jews around the world joined in a collective recitation of the Shema prayer on Thursday that was broadcast from Jerusalem’s Western Wall to support the more than 130 Israeli hostages still held by Hamas.

The event was organized by the Hostage and Missing Families Forum along with Aish HaTorah, a haredi Orthodox yeshiva and outreach movement. They timed it to the Fast of Esther, which commemorates the threat the Jews of Persia faced from their persecutor, Haman, in the Purim story.

The call for participation took off in Jewish communities around the world, with synagogues of all denominations encouraging their members to join in and Jewish day schools pausing their lessons to have their students say the Shema. Jewish influencers on social media also exhorted their followers to participate.

The YouTube livestream from the Western Wall registered over 150,000 viewers, but there were signs that far more people were participating: The Google search engine registered a massive spike in queries for the Shema at 11 a.m., just before the planned prayer time.

At the Western Wall, speakers wearing tags marked “167” for the number of days the hostages have been captive likened the plight of the hostages to the Jews of Persia in the Purim tale.

Jews attend a prayer for the return of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 21, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“Many Jewish girls were kidnapped in that ancient Persian kingdom,” said Rabbi Eitiel Goldwicht, perched on a plateau overlooking the Western Wall plaza, where hundreds were gathered in the lead-up to the prayer. “And Queen Esther was taken to the royal palace and she was kept hostage for five years, and then antisemitism rose across the entire world.”

Ahead of the prayers, soldiers on leave from the front and the families of hostages appeared, including the parents of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was abducted on Oct. 7 from the Nova music festival.

Rachel Goldberg spoke about why Hersh has become a symbol of the plight of the hostages.

“He’s very familiar to a lot people, he looks a lot like everybody, it could be anyone’s son,” she said. “There’s a familiarity to him that makes it feel like it could be anyone’s son, anyone’s brother, anyone’s grandson, anyone’s friend.”

Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall, led prayers for then hostages and for the soliders fighting the war launched by Hamas on Oct. 7, when its terrorists invaded Israel, murdering approximately 1,200 people and abducting more than 250. Of those hostages, more than 130 remain captive.

He culminated with the Shema, a passage from Deuteronomy that serves as the signature prayer affirming the Jewish belief in one God.

Along with the Jewish participants, non-Jews joined as well. “This Christian pastor, scientist, husband and father with not one drop of Jewish blood in his veins will be praying the Shema at 10:15 Central along with people all over the world,” said Patrick Mead of Our Harbor, a virtual church. “Join me.”


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