For most of us, the war in Israel is a dull ache, a reminder whenever one happens to glance at the news that after all these years hatred is still thriving in the Middle East.

But here, at the Kol Ami Synagogue in the Salt Lake foothills, it’s more than that, much more. As sundown approaches on a recent Friday afternoon, signaling the start of the Jewish Sabbath, a police car, manned by an off-duty cop, is parked at the entrance, its blue and red lights flashing — the standard greeting now for congregants as they arrive for evening services. They pass through recently upgraded motion-detecting floodlights and then wait to be buzzed in at the front door.

Security is always an expense at the synagogue, as it is at virtually all Jewish places of worship, but Rabbi Samuel Spector says since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Kol Ami has been compelled to spend thousands more on safety measures.

The answer to ending the madness, to seeing the police car turn off its lights and drive away?

“Stop hating Jews,” is the rabbi’s short answer. “Let the people live and live in peace.”

The rabbi is no militant, no warmonger. He’s long been a proponent of the moderate idea of carving out a portion of Israel and giving it to the Palestinian people for their home. As he sees it, if there’s anything good to say about the current situation, it’s that it could pave the way for the two-state solution to finally become a reality.

“I actually have more hope for two-state than I did before Oct. 7,” he says. “I feel like (before the war) there were people on the extreme right who said all this should be ours and people on the extreme left who said why can’t we all just get along and create one country. Now, I think both extremes have realized that’s not going to be the case.”

He continues, “The far right had always said, ‘Vote for us if you want safety and security,’ and now we’ve seen the biggest collapse of security in Israel’s history and largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, so I think this has revived the opportunity for more moderate leadership in Israel. I don’t think Israel will tolerate any more Gaza being led by Hamas, so hopefully there will be people who take over in Gaza who will feel the international pressure for a two-state solution.”

Rabbi Samuel Spector, of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, talks about the conflicts in Ukraine and also Israel during an interview on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Meanwhile, he sees no other course than to continue to battle an enemy whose pronounced goal is the extermination of Jews.

“The Hamas charter openly states it is committed to genocide of the Jewish people,” he says. “They’ve said Oct. 7 is just a preview, that they’re going to do this a thousand more times. If Israel laid down their weapons, there’d be a second Holocaust.”

Rabbi Spector was in Israel twice last year, in August, about a month before the Hamas attack, on a congregant synagogue trip, and again in November, about a month after the fighting began, as part of a fellowship of young American rabbis. The trip had been scheduled long before the war, and he could have stayed safe at home, as some rabbis elected to do. But Rabbi Spector decided to go. “The point of our trip was to strengthen ties and show the Israelis they’re not alone, so our trip seemed more important than ever,” he says.

The atmosphere he felt between the two visits was night and day.

In the August visit, “It was in the midst of the judicial reform debate and I’d never seen a country more divided,” he says, “and in November, I’d never seen a country more united.

“It felt a lot like the United States on Sept. 12, 2001,” he continues. “People were heartbroken and at the same time doing all they could to pull together. I was in a hotel where everybody else was an internal refugee who had been displaced from the southern border. People just showed up at the hotel, shouting in the lobby, ‘I have a washing machine, who needs their clothes washed?’ It didn’t matter if you were religious or secular, a man or a woman, straight, gay, Jewish or Muslim or Christian, everybody had been affected by this war and everybody stepped up to help each other. That was incredibly inspiring.”

All while the threat of war was unrelenting.

“When I checked into my hotel, they told me where the bomb shelter was, and to take my shower in the morning because Hamas usually fires its rockets in the evening,” says the rabbi.

Here at home, he’s seen a similar coming together by his congregation — the largest in Utah at some 1,200 members. Although it’s not universal. “Some have been inspired to come out more,” he says, “and there are some who said they’re too scared to come.”

He reviews the reasons why: “Since Oct. 7, we’ve received four bomb threats, we’ve had protesters outside our building protesting the Israeli government — when we’re not the Israeli government, we’re a synagogue of Jewish Americans — we had a guy who drove through our parking lot screaming oaths at us, we had someone who drove at a bunch of us on the sidewalk, we have received numerous voicemails and emails that are threatening in nature.”

And so life goes on. At the Kol Ami Synagogue, situated on a beautiful plot of land overlooking the lights of Salt Lake City, surrounded by peaceful east side neighborhoods, in the land of the free and the brave, the cold hard truth is that it requires an act of courage just to go to a service.

“It’s something we’ve dealt with our entire history,” Rabbi Spector sighs. “It’s sad, but there hasn’t been a time when we haven’t been hated, when we haven’t had people trying to kill us.”

Rabbi Samuel Spector, of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, poses for photos after discussing the conflicts in Ukraine and also Israel during an interview on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News