A long dining table has stood in front of Old Union for more than a week, each of its empty chairs reserved for one of the 224 hostages kidnapped by Hamas in October — the number has since been estimated to be over 240, according to the Israeli military.
Passerbys on their way to Tresidder Union stop frequently to read the names of the victims taped to each chair and glance at the Challah loaves, tea candles, sippy cups, books and other items filling the length of the table.
Members of Stanford’s Jewish community and allies gathered on Oct. 27 to set up the empty Shabbat table and hold a Shabbat service mourning those kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in their Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
“For the Jewish community, it’s a symbol of hope and, for the rest of campus, it’s an educational tool and a reminder that there are still people being held hostage,” said Tia Geri ’25, who helped organize the installation.
For Odelia Lorch ’24, an Israeli student who worked with Geri to organize the installation, the weeks since Hamas’ attack have been “horrid.”
Soon after the attack, she called her cousin in Israel.
“He was just walking through piles of dead bodies all day Saturday and Sunday and he was telling me about these bodies, about a fetus that was ripped out of its mother’s stomach, about a child who was burned alive, in a trash can,” Lorch said.
She said she knows people murdered in the attack and her brother has been called to serve in the army.
“These are the things that haunt me daily. So, I don’t sleep. I have nightmares. I’m not ok,” Lorch said.
Her grief and anxiety have been compounded by being on campus, which she said is “a whole other nightmare.”
Following the Hamas attack and Israel’s retaliatory war in Palestinian territories, there has been a rise of reported hate crimes on campus against Jewish and Palestinian students, as well as those advocating for Palestine.
In the wake of the war and alleged on-campus crimes, students have participated in walkouts, vigils and rallies, advocating for justice in Palestine. Israel declared a state of war following the Oct. 7 attack and has since pummeled the Gaza strip with air strikes. At least 9,061 Palestinians have been killed as of Thursday, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Jewish community members have also held vigils and other events to mourn the Israeli lives lost in the attack.
On Oct. 20, students began an ongoing sit-in at White Plaza, a few feet away from the Shabbat table, urging the University to issue a statement calling for a cease-fire and condemning what they view as Israeli war crimes, among other demands.
Some community members criticized the pro-Palestinian efforts on campus, claiming that certain phrases chanted and written out at protests and chalked on the ground are antisemitic.
“To walk out of my room and to see people inciting phrases that mean violence and destruction to my people and that taunt and tease right after something absolutely horrid happened … What should have been happening was comfort,” Lorch said. “What should have been happening was the entire university, all of our friends, coming to sit with us as we were mourning, as we were huddling together, as we were terrified, as we were sobbing, as we were paralyzed.”
It was amid this challenging time that students including Lorch and Geri decided to create the empty Shabbat table, drawing inspiration from similar installations set up around the world.
“We were looking for a way to turn all of these feelings of grief and paralysis and sadness and fear into a community event where people could come together and connect and then have a physical creation that we could pour our feelings into,” Geri said.
After sending their idea to various group chats, over 100 community members came together to set up the table Friday. Some people brought personal items to honor the hostage victims, like a handwritten birthday card for a hostage who turned 12 in captivity.
Geri believes these items are important to emphasize that each victim bears their own story. “They’re not just faceless, nameless, political ploys to score a few political points,” she said.
Setting up the table, Lorch said, was an emotional experience for community members, many of whom looked around to find the seats of kidnapped victims they knew. One student identified three of his friends, Lorch said.
At the service, the group sang traditional Shabbat songs, as well as songs about caring for people in terrible places.
“We were honestly a little overwhelmed by how incredible it was, how much people needed this and how much this was the opportunity for people to put all of their anxiety and grief into something tangible,” Lorch said.
Lorch often sees people going to pray by the table in the mornings, afternoons and evenings.
Joshua Jankelow ’24 is one of them. Alongside various Jewish organizations on campus, like Chabad at Stanford, of which he is the president, he has gone to pray at the table since its installation. He said many people have come up to him and others to express their thoughts and prayers.
“To see such a big empty table made us realize how empty so many families and homes are going to feel for a very very long time to come,” Jankelow said.
Jankelow told The Daily he has had difficulty grappling with the tragedy, as he mourns the loss of civilian lives and worries about his family and friends hiding in bomb shelters in Israel.
He said he also mourns Palestinian lives lost in Gaza and respects the right to critique Israel’s response to the attack, though he takes issue with some of the phrases heard across campus, such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which has been heard chanted and written on signs at various protests.
“All we want is the right to mourn and the right to feel safe and welcome and loved on our campus and that’s unfortunately something we’ve been forced to defend,” Jankelow said. “All we can do to show that is something like this Shabbat table.”