It was the Sabbath evening in Beverly Hills and a crowd of observers gathered around a long table with 201 chairs. They sang, they prayed, they lit candles, but nobody sat down.
This is because last Friday, Oct. 20, was a Shabbat unlike any other. It was marked by the heartbreaking knowledge that over 200 Israeli hostages could not celebrate with their families—a tragedy that Chabad in the Hills chose to represent by setting up a Shabbat table with an empty seat for every hostage.
“You can only imagine what horrors they’ve already experienced and what is yet to come for them before they see the daylight,” Chabad in the Hills Rabbi Yossi Cunin told the Courier on Shabbat evening. “Yet we stand here in Beverly Hills and have the privilege to be able to take mind of all those poor souls that are suffering today,”
“Their loss is felt with the empty chairs.”
This idea for a symbolic empty Shabbat table began in Tel Aviv and has been replicated by several Jewish communities around the world: in Bondi Beach, in Rome, and now in Beverly Hills, where it had a profound impact on the community members who visited.
The speed with which the table was set up is also a touching testament to the unity of Beverly Hills’ Jewish community in this deeply troubling time.
“We all (members of the shul) sat around after the morning prayers at 9:30 and pulled it together: who had chairs, who had tables, who had dishes and glasses. By 12:30 in the afternoon it was all set up,” Cunin told the Courier in a phone interview.
The owner of the Beverly Hills Tower, located at 499 N. Canon Drive, offered a long grassy strip to host the tables and chairs, which were lent free of charge by a rental company that the shul often uses for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. One chabad member offered to print out fliers with a photo of each hostage, while another member volunteered to print out a banner bearing their names.
The result was a stunning table set, at once heart-rending and warming, that brought tears and solace to the many community members who came by.
“By the time it was done it looked like a piece of artwork that was out there on display,” said Cunin. “It was something that gave honor and dignity to all those who are in pain and suffering.”
The ceremonial lighting of the Shabbat candles was a particularly poignant moment, which took on a deeper meaning in light of horrifying recent events.
“We want to be able to bring light on this very holy day of the Sabbath by lighting candles because terrorism brings darkness and our religion teaches us that to overcome darkness, we have to bring in the light,” Councilmember Sharona Nazarian told the Courier on Shabbat.
“We stand united, we stand together as a community, and we pray that all of the hostages will be returned swiftly back to their homes and their families so that they can sit around the Shabbat table together.”
Cunin echoed this sentiment, highlighting the importance of bringing in light, love and prayer to fight the forces of terror.
“This is what we need to do to keep our freedoms and show that we will not succumb to the darkness,” he said. “Last week they (Hamas) wanted us to hide as Jews. We’re not hiding.”
While Cunin has attended countless Shabbats over his lifetime, the singing and candle lighting in last week’s ceremony stood alone in its significance and power.
“Singing that tune of welcoming in Shabbat brings us an idea of solace and peace and comfort that goes beyond words, and there was everybody holding the candle singing along and knowing that there is going to be a better and brighter day,”
“One glimmer of light dispels miles of darkness,” he continued. “The darker it is, the brighter the light shines and that’s where it really counts for us right now.”