“After Colleyville” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman, Shabbat Yitro 5782

Baruch Atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, matir asurim.

Blessed are You, God, Sovereign of the universe, Who frees the captives.

This blessing is one that is said daily, as part of the morning blessings known as Nissim B’chol Yom, daily miracles.  It is also part of a prayer we will say tonight in the Tefillah, the second blessing called the Gevurot in which we praise God, who frees the captives.

Could any of us have imagined that we would be saying this blessing in thanks for a Rabbi and three members of a congregation, a small Reform congregation at that, making it feel even closer to us.

The world is certainly upside down when a sanctuary becomes the opposite of being a sanctuary.  As Deborah Lipstadt wrote earlier this week, “It is not radical to say that going to services, whether to converse with God or with the neighbors you see only once a week, should not be an act of courage. And yet this weekend we were once again reminded that it can be precisely that.”  (New York Times, 1/18/22)

A journalist for the Forward interviewed a number of rabbis about what they would say this Shabbat.  One rabbi in Detroit commented that she didn’t have to really wonder what to say, she already had sermons prepared.  After Pittsburgh, after Poway, after the Hanukkah attack, after Jersey City — here we are once again….

This was different; it was a hostage taking.  Thankfully all of the hostages made it out safely, though surely emotionally scarred.  This attack was of such a different nature that it even elicited debate:  was it an act of antisemitism or was it just terrorism?  Ultimately, the FBI did officially classify it as a terrorist attack against the Jewish community, an act of antisemitism.

There was an unusual twist from other antisemitic attacks which may explain, in part, the initial lack of clarify surrounding it.  The hostage taker, Malik Faisal Akram, said multiple times that he didn’t want to hurt the hostages.  This was not the kind of antisemitic attack to which we are accustomed.  He very carefully, intentionally chose a synagogue as the vehicle through which he believed he could get the release of Aafia Siddiqui, because as Rabbi Cytron-Walker recalled: 

“… it was basically the notion that Jews were more important in his mind than everyone else, and that America would do more to save Jews than it would for anyone else,” …. “That’s why he specifically targeted a synagogue. That ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ type of antisemitism — that’s why he focused on us.”

A very old antisemitic trope – Jews rule the world, the media, the banks, etc.

In what was a truly bizarre twist, the hostage taker’s very first demand was to speak with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan.  Why?  This was completely unclear to us for quite some time.  I thought that maybe it was because they might well have the most hits on livestream; therefore, that synagogue is perceived of as the most important.  One podcast I listened to pointed to the name of the congregation: Central Synagogue.  Rabbi Cytron-Walker said that Akram knew that she played the guitar; he “thought she was the most influential rabbi.”

After the hostages were all free, we heaved a sigh of relief, but only for a moment as the we were reminded, once again, of the sad reality that antisemitism is so pervasive, it is not going away any time soon.  As Lipstadt pointed out: At least for time being, American synagogues are coming to resemble European synagogues, with their high security and locked doors.

Pittsburgh was a wakeup call to realities of antisemitism in 21century America – on the left, on the right, internationally.  There are so many complicated layers to fight it and try to eradicate it.  Even as we do, we have to accept the reality that antisemitism will be with us for some time to come and address the challenges of learning to live with it.

How do we do that?

First and foremost, we must be prepared. Security is of paramount importance.

Even as the hostage taking was still unfolding, our president, Susan Karnes Hecht, and our housing chair, Alan Kaflowitz, were already reviewing our current procedures and engaging with local law enforcement who is paying attention. Police and local law enforcement are there for us.

Numerous times Rabbi Cytron-Walker and other hostages spoke about the importance of the active shooter training they had received, that it clearly saved their lives.  After Pittsburgh, many of you participated in training that we held here.  We will repeat that and are working through Federation to organize training sessions for our community.

Yesterday I attended a webinar sponsored by the ADL which had, as I later found out, 7000 attendees.  The speakers including ADL Executive Director, Jonathan Greenblatt, Rabbi Cytron-Walker and FBI Director Christopher Wray.  Director Wray spoke about the on-going investigation into the background of the hostage taker.  He also said something very important that I hadn’t heard before.   The nature of terrorist attacks has changed.  By and large, there no longer seem to be sleeper cells such as organized the  9-11 attacks.  Rather, they are lone attackers.  The good thing is that these attackers are generally less sophisticated.  The challenge is there is less lead time and fewer leads for investigators to follow.  That means that it is even more important for us to report anything suspicious; you never know when one lead may match up with another and help investigators prevent an attack.   

The FBI maintains a close relationship with the ADL and other Jewish organizations.  You should be familiar with the Secure Community Network (SCN), founded in 2004, under the auspices of The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  It is the official homeland security and safety initiative of the organized Jewish community in North America.   It provides threat information and crisis management; it offers guidance on security practices and procedures and trainings and education.  It serves as the formal liaison for the Jewish community with Federal Law enforcement

During the ADL webinar, Rabbi Cytron-Walker for the first time about why he let the guy in.  He appeared to be a person needing warmth and shelter.  The rabbi was with him until the service started, he was the one who gave him tea. He kept reading the man’s face and his actions, saw no hints of anything to come, of ulterior motives; no nervousness, he looked the rabbi in the eye.  Rabbi Cytron-Walker had lots of training, more than the average person, and in that moment, the man seemed ok.  You can be prepared and, as Rabbi Cytron-Walker said, sometimes stuff still happens.

Frankly, I don’t know that I would have done the same, that I would have let him in.  And it pains me to say that. 

We are all trying to figure out the balance between two essential Jewish values: lance – hachnasat orchim, being welcoming, and pikuah nefesh, saving and protecting lives. 

So we will continue to keep our doors locked.  At the same time, we must keep putting messages out there that we are an open and welcoming community.

We actually had to do this early on with zoom.  We learned from one incident with zoom bombers that we couldn’t just post the links on our website.  We have a two-step process for those not on our mailing list.    Are there people who might have joined us and didn’t, perhaps.  Even so, new people have still found us.

Things that we can do to be proactive.  We can ask our government to act.  The service reminder email that was sent out today includes links for each of these actions:

1.  Demand that our representatives in the House increase funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to support security for houses of worship;

2. Demand that the Senate confirm Deborah Lipstadt as the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.  Although this is an international position and not a domestica one, it will send an important message that the US takes combatting antisemitism seriously and will encourage other governments to as well.

We must keep our eyes open; pay attention and report anything suspicious to the police.  The ADL asks that we report, on their website, any hate crimes as they are tracking and monitoring them.

In a webinar this summer, Jonathan Greenblatt said that, ultimately, antisemitism is best combatted through changing hearts and minds on local level not through legislation (though we need to do both).  We saw the tremendous support that Congregation Beth Israel received from the interfaith community in Colleyville, because the rabbi and the congregation were part of that.  We must continue to build and strengthen such relationships.

Above all, we cannot let fear paralyze us.  On the anniversary of President Biden’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman, who delivered that oh so powerful poem that day, wrote an op-ed in the Times, in which she revealed that she almost declined invitation out of fear – fear of        COVID, fear of being attacked after January 6th. She thought long and hard and ultimately decided that she would not let fear overtake her; she owned her fear. She concluded her piece as follows:

“And yes, I still am terrified every day. Yet fear can be love trying its best in the dark. So do not fear your fear. Own it. Free it. This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you — it’s a power you must look for, learn, love, lead and locate for yourself.

Why? The truth is, hope isn’t a promise we give. It’s a promise we live. Tell it like this, and we, like our words, will not rest.

And the rest is history.”

Finally, our best response to antisemitism is to live fully and proudly as Jews.  In the conclusion of her book, Antisemitism Here and Now, Deborah Lipdstadt wrote “What is necessary for Jews to survive and flourish as a people is neither dark pessimism nor cockeyed optimism, but realism.  It would be ludicrous to dismiss as paranoid the concerned of those who react strongly to the escalating acts of antisemitism in recent times….. But at the same time, it would be folly for Jews to make this the organizing principle of their lives.”  She continued to tell the story of entering her synagogue with a friend and her five-year-old daughter.  As they entered, the friend said to her daughter, “Let’s say hi and thank you to the guard for keeping us safe.”  The little girl looked puzzled.  To her the synagogue was not a place where she would need protection; it was the place where she played in the playground with her friends, sang songs in the children’s service, where they came into the sanctuary to help close the service and get lollipops from the rabbi. Lipstadt continued, “My hope for my little friend is that as she grows up, her awareness of the dangers that may threaten her well-being at the synagogue or at any other Jewish venue will never overshadow the joys she finds here.

So may it be for us and for our children and their children after us.

It is with joy that we now turn to our Shabbat worship….