When we enter into a synagogue, our first impulse should not be to check the emergency exits, just in case they are needed. When we gather together in community, we should not be forced to clear countless layers of security to simply enter the building. When we come to pray, we should be able to do so safely and freely without fear of what may be lurking outside, or worse, inside.
We know what the experience of praying in a house of worship should be like; unfortunately, we also know what it really is like. For members of the Jewish community, and for certain other religious groups, there is sadly a risk associated with setting foot in any of our communal buildings. We mitigate the risk by investing heavily in security, by ensuring that staff are thoroughly trained and by maintaining excellent relations with local law enforcement and Jewish security agencies. But the risk is still there.
For 11 hours on Saturday, we witnessed the nightmare scenario that we try not to think about. We watched in horror as an armed terrorist entered Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, a small Reform synagogue, and proceeded to hold the rabbi and three congregants hostage. We prayed and we waited, hoping for the hostages to be freed, fearful of what might happen.
With immense gratitude to the law enforcement professionals and the first responders, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants saved themselves and returned safely to their families. They will, of course, forever carry the scars of those 11 hours they experienced. But the Jewish community is a small community, and when one of us is attacked, we all feel it, we all experience it and we all carry it with us. And in the aftermath of what happened at Congregation Beth Israel, I am reeling as a rabbi, as a Jew and simply as a human being.
Watching the press conference at the conclusion of the night’s events, I was struck by the comments of FBI special agent Matthew DeSarno. When asked for more details on the incident, he said that the terrorist “was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.” While DeSarno may be factually correct about what the terrorist wanted, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that he chose to carry out his attack at a synagogue and that it was Jews who were held hostage. There are many who seek to ignore or downplay antisemitism today, but the fact is that it is alive and well. All too often the Jews end up being the scapegoats, the victims, the targets, even when the issue has nothing directly to do with us.
Members of the Jewish community are reaching out to one another, offering comfort and support. But at this moment, the comfort and support needs to also come from outside of the Jewish community. We need to know that we are not alone in this moment and that you see us, our fears and our pain. Those who fight against terror and hate will often say that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. In this moment, we need to know that we are not facing this threat alone.
In 1790, President George Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, reassuring them about their place in the fledgling union. Quoting the Bible, he hoped that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Over 230 years later, with the need for security guards, cameras and other measures, his words are yet to be fulfilled at our nation’s synagogues; we unfortunately saw that on Saturday. But he offers us a vision of how things could be, something that we must all work toward.
In the shadow of what happened at Congregation Beth Israel, we should give thanks to the law enforcement officers and first responders who helped the four hostages. We should reach out and check in on all of those who are reeling in its aftermath. And we should recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that all people can gather together in community to pray freely and safely without fear of violence or attack.