Rabbi Steven Exler tells stories of bravery, horror on the frontlines

The Bayit rabbi was one of 28 Jewish leaders on Israeli trek UJA on trip to Israel


In a matter of three short days in Israel last week Rabbi Steven Exler and a group of 27 other New York Jewish leaders learned first-hand just how harrowing life has been for Israelis living life after Oct. 7.

“I have begun to understand how much worse Oct. 7 could have been (a near impossible thing to really contemplate) had it not been for the incredible courage of the many civilians who simply dropped everything,” Exler wrote in a dispatch to his Hebrew Institute of Riverdale — The Bayit congregation, “and went into the literal line of fire without orders for hours and even days to protect the residents of the region.”

Exler described how one son, Yonatan, of Rabbi Doron Perez and his wife Shelley “simply picked up a weapon” and went fighting for hours to defend the Gaza “envelope” communities until he was wounded and hospitalized. He did this knowing he was about to be married in a few short days.

He didn’t even know at the time his own brother, Daniel, was taken hostage by Hamas.

Another family Exler met was that of Rena Quint, who is a Holocaust survivor and mother of David Quint of The Bayit. She had a message for Rabbi Exler: “We have made it through everything, and we will make through this, too as she echoed the words of the Israeli song “Katan Aleinu” (“We got this”).

The trip was sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, which was there to aid those impacted by the war with Hamas.

The delegation landed in Israel on Oct. 30 and traveled through Nov. 1, visiting numerous communities to provide support and trauma assistance to evacuees and families of hostages and engaging in chaplaincy work at major medical centers.

The delegation included rabbis and Jewish leaders from diverse backgrounds, including 11 Orthodox, six Conservative, five Reform, and one Reconstructionist leaders. They represented synagogues and organizations from all five boroughs in New York City, as well as Long Island and Westchester. Rabbi Menachem Creditor, the Pearl and Ira Meyer scholar-in-residence at UJA, and Alex Roth-Kahn, the managing director of UJA’s Caring Department, traveled with the delegation.

Since the attack on Israel on Oct. 7, UJA has allocated more than $37 million to meet emergency needs related to the war.

Participating Jewish leaders

• Orit Lender: Joan & Alan Bernikow JCC of Staten Island
• Erica Brown: Yeshiva University
• Aaron Brusso: Bet Torah
• Angela Buchdahl: Central Synagogue
• Eliezer Buechler: Columbia/Barnard Hillel – The Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life
• Carie Carter: Park Slope Jewish Center
• Michelle Dardashti: Kane Street Synagogue
• Joshua Davidson: Temple Emanu-El
• Steven Exler: Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
• Naphtali “Tully” Harcsztark: SAR Academy and High School
• Richard Hidary: Sephardic Synagogue
• Jonathan Jaffe: Beth El of Northern Westchester
• Jonathan Leener: Prospect Heights Shul
• Yosie Levine: The Jewish Center
• Serge Lippe: Brooklyn Heights Synagogue
• Liana Meirom Asif: The Jewish Agency for Israel/UJA
• Shlomo Nisanov: Kehilat Sephardim of Ahavat Achim
• Harry Pell: The Leffell School
• David Schuck: Beth El Synagogue Center
• Daniel Sherman: West Side Institutional Synagogue
• Jodie Siff: Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore
• Noam Silverman: Abraham Joshua Heschel School
• Benjamin Skydell: Congregation Orach Chaim
• Joshua Stanton: East End Temple
• Annie Tucker: Temple Israel Center
• Elie Weinstock: Jewish Center Atlantic Beach

As part of his trip, Rabbi Exler took part in a closing circle where the Jewish leaders discussed what they couldn’t achieve on their trip due to time constraints. He summed it up with a list of questions:

“How does Israel achieve its objectives of restoring security, safety and confidence with both maximum effectiveness and maximum morality?” he asked. “For those like me who cannot give up on the vision of shared society, how do we, alongside our laser focus on the hostages, the soldiers and all those whose lives have been turned upside down.

What must we be doing now to position ourselves best for the ‘day after?’”

Rabbi Steven Exler, The Bayit, Israel, Gaza, Jewish, Palestine, war, Naphtali "Tully" Harcsztark