Rows of empty Shabbat tables were assembled on the Bryan Center Plaza Monday, representing over 230 people kidnapped in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks in Israel.
Throughout the day, passersby frequently stopped in front of the Bryan Center platform’s empty tables topped with flowers, challah bread and wine, glancing at the backpacks representing each kidnapped child and reading the hostages’ missing posters.
The all-day event was led by student groups Chabad at Duke and Students Supporting Israel, along with Jewish Life at Duke, and took weeks to set up following the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel.
Co-President of Chabad Jonah Scherl, a senior, said that the student groups worked to find the most effective and visible venue for the scene. Originally inspired by a display in Israel, similar displays have appeared at colleges and universities across the United States, including at Harvard, Stanford and Brown.
Chabad board members Nicole Schwenk and Rebecca Zeltsman, both seniors, said that the empty Shabbat scene puts the kidnappings in the context of Jewish cultural and religious tradition.
“It’s a table that’s entirely set. Every setting is there. There's the typical challah, the wine and the flowers. The attack happened on a Saturday morning. So it was right after Shabbat, right after most victims had their own dinners with their families,” Zeltsman said. “It’s really just like life was completely stopped and interrupted for people just celebrating and trying to have a good time on their own weekend on holiday.”
Schwenk echoed Zeltsman’s sentiments, speaking to the intricacies of the scene and the feeling of incompletion imposed by the kidnappings.
Schwenk said that “every detail” incorporated into a normal Shabbat dinner that would have occurred without the attacks was taken into account, from the backpacks for the missing children to the yarmulkes for every male hostage.
This event continues efforts by Jewish student groups to uplift each other through their grief and allows them to externalize these feelings into a call for awareness, Schwenk said.
“From the day that this happened, there have been at least three to four events a week, doing anything from just grabbing a coffee with people in our community that have been impacted and want to talk [to] the vigil and this table, which are much more powerful and really organized demonstrations. We've tried to lead educational events, bring in speakers, just anything and everything,” Zeltsman added.
SSI President Alanna Peykar, a senior, said that putting on a display like this helps to bring awareness and comfort, given that many of those who were kidnapped are college aged.
“From what I'm hearing, people are looking for some sort of comfort,” Peykar said. “It is kind of difficult being a Jewish student on campus… but at the same time, and we don't feel that sense all the time, so that's why now it's important to do something like this, in order to serve as a reminder to other people that aren't directly affected.”
Though the scene grieves those kidnapped on Oct. 7, student leaders said that the display also attests to a determination to process and move forward.
“I think more than anything, the Jewish community really does value life. And I feel that even when I'm being supported, I do want people to understand that I’m moving on every single day and all of our efforts are in that spirit of just life and just celebrating the good we have that’s going on,” Co-President of Chabad and sophomore Noyah Shebshaievitz said.
Scherl added that an event like this reflects the strength of the Jewish community at the University, but offers a reminder that the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks have had lasting effects globally.
“The idea that our Chabad house, our table for Shabbat could fill with just as many people who were missing is pretty tragic and really devastating for our community,” Scherl said. He added that the kidnappings are of international importance, pointing to how one of the victims was from his hometown in New Jersey.
“This is an international affair. This isn't just hitting Israel, these are communities around the world,” he said.
The five student leaders hope that the display will encourage members of the Duke community to check in on and learn how to emotionally support their Jewish friends, while also better educating themselves.
Scherl and Peykar both emphasized the impact of a simple text or check-in and asked that Duke community members engage in active conversation and constant education about the ongoing crisis.
“I think it's important to ask questions. Obviously, this is a very nuanced situation and it can be very intimidating to learn about what's going on. But the best way to start is to approach our organizations, whether that’s SSI, Chabad or JLD, and come to events, reach out to students or leaders and just ask where to start with learning, and take uncomfortable steps to be a little more engaged,” Peykar said.
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Halle Vazquez is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.