On the evening of Friday, Nov. 3, Jewish families around the world sat down together to pray and enjoy a Shabbat dinner. But many families, both in Israel and overseas, were unable to fully enjoy the holiest day of the week. Dining room chairs, normally occupied by those currently being held hostage by Hamas, sat empty.
Those hostages, unable to come home to their families for Shabbat, were the focus of the Empty Shabbat Table rally held at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation ahead of Shabbat on Nov. 3. A team of volunteers set up a Shabbat table on the congregation’s front lawn with 240 seats, each one adorned with a poster of an Israeli hostage being held by Hamas.
Adults, children and the elderly were all represented at this Shabbat table, which had been set with individual placemats and untouched loaves of challah and empty glasses.
“We’re showcasing the fact that 240 of our brothers and sisters are not going to be at Shabbat dinner tonight,” Caren Leven, executive director of Baltimore Zionist District and one of the event’s organizers, told the JT at the event.
According to The New York Times, the Israeli military has stated that 242 people are being held captive by Hamas. Four of them — mother and daughter Judith Tai Ranaan and Natalie Ranaan, as well as Nurit Cooper and Yocheved Lifshitz — have been released since Oct. 7, but the fate of the rest of them remains unknown.
Cantors and rabbis from many Baltimore-area congregations attended the event, including from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Beth Tfiloh Congregation, among others. Representatives from Jewish organizations such as The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, JCC of Greater Baltimore and Israel Bonds of Maryland were also present.
At the center of the Empty Shabbat Table were two guests who spoke about their own relatives and friends who are among the hostages. Boaz Atzili, a Rockville resident and a professor of international politics at American University, told the stories of his cousin, Aviv, and his wife, Liat, who are assumed to have been taken hostage.
“Aviv and Liat are both peace-loving, compassionate people,” Atzili said. “The kind of people who adopted a three-legged, special needs dog. That dog, sadly, was one of the victims of the Oct. 7 attack.”
Atzili’s family is from the Otef Aza region of Israel, south of Ashkelon and close in proximity to the Gaza Strip. He noted that a quarter of the residents of the kibbutz his family lives on were murdered or assumed kidnapped on Oct. 7.
In his speech at the event, he used his platform to call for an end to Israel’s bombing campaign against Gaza, citing concerns for the hostages and for the innocent civilians of Gaza. Atzili said he believes that negotiating the hostages’ release should be Israel and the U.S.’s top priority.
“I’m scared of not only what Hamas will do to my cousins, but what Israeli bombs dropping on Gaza will do to them,” Atzili said. “In a challenging time like this, we have to stick to our Jewish values. The lives of children in Gaza are precious, and Israel should do what they can to preserve them.”
The other speaker for hostages, Yolit Yospe-Kachlon, grew up in Kibbutz Nahal Oz and later moved to Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Both kibbutzes were attacked by Hamas, and many of her friends and neighbors are being held hostage. At the Empty Shabbat Table event, she spoke of Hamas livestreaming the kidnapping of a friend’s child, as well as the other inhabitants of both kibbutzim that have been taken captive.
“I know their names, I know their faces. My heart is broken, this is my home,” Yospe-Kachlon said. “When people ask me if I have family in the kibbutz, I tell them that the kibbutz is my family.”
Several Maryland politicians also spoke at the rally, including representatives of a few that could not attend themselves. Myrna Cardin, the wife of Sen. Ben Cardin and a former president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, read a letter written by the senator.
“We are setting the table for those who cannot be with us. As your senator, I want you to know that my immediate priority is the release of every hostage held by Hamas and their safe return to their families,” Myrna Cardin said, reading Ben Cardin’s letter. “We must have faith that they will come home safely. We must remember that all of us in the Jewish community are their family.”
The rally was meant to raise awareness of the hostages’ situation. Attendees who scanned the QR codes on the #KidnappedFromIsrael posters at each seat could also donate to the European Jewish Association on behalf of the Kidnapped From Israel campaign.
“Think of those who are not sitting around the Shabbat table tonight,” Yospe-Kachlon said. “Pray for them, fight for them, promise that we will do everything we can to bring them home.”