In the early hours of Shabbat morning services at Beth Israel outside of Dallas, Malik Faisal Akram knocked on the door of the synagogue inquiring about whether the building was a shelter. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker took in Akram and gave him tea. Cytron-Walker was living out the Jewish value of “Hachnasat Orchim” (welcoming in the stranger). A short while after, Akram revealed himself as a terrorist who was intent on holding the Jewish worshippers at Beth Israel hostage. The horrifying ordeal went on for eleven hours and the first few hours were livestreamed on Facebook.
Our worst nightmare.
That was the gut reaction in our home.
Since the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, our synagogues, schools, and Jewish institutions have all changed their approach to security. At the same time, we have summoned all of our spiritual resources towards the hope that these events won’t happen again, knowing that in all likelihood, our spiritual resources represent hopeful and wishful thinking. Attacks on Jewish institutions come from the right and from the left. Those who kill us and have sought to kill us have been members of many religions and no religions at all. Attempts to try and explain away antisemitism by assigning it to a specific group, religion, or ethnicity prove futile.
For the past two months, a small group of parents and community members have been gathering to read the book “People Love Dead Jews” by Dara Horn. Interspersed between the various historical lessons that Horn draws on from the Jewish past, are reflections on contemporary attacks on Jewish institutions (including Poway and Pittsburgh).
In one of these reflections, Horn writes:
The existence of Jews in any society is a reminder that freedom is possibility, but only with responsibility and that freedom without responsibility is no freedom at all. People who hate Jews know this. You don’t need to read the latest screed by a hater to know that unhinged killers feel entitled to freedom without any obligation to others. Antisemitism is at heart a conspiracy theory, and one appeal of conspiracy theories is that they absolve their believers of accountability, replacing the difficult obligation to build relationships with the urge to destroy……….I don’t know what to tell my children about this horror (the attack on a synagogue in Poway, California), but I do know what to tell you. The freedoms that we cherish are meaningless without our commitments to one another; to civil discourse, to actively educating the next generation, to welcoming strangers, to loving our neighbors. The beginning of freedom is the beginning of responsibility.
In my blog last week I wrote about the bravery of Nachshon Ben Aminadav, who bravely walked into the waters of the Red Sea. I wrote about the importance of bravery and fortitude when we encounter walls or barriers and the importance of action in the face of worry.
This week’s Torah portion starts with the words “Vayishma Yitro” (And Yitro Heard). Our Rabbis teach us about how many individuals heard about the miracles of the Red Sea but only Yitro truly listened to the meaning of the miracle. Yitro was mentioned in the Torah because he not only heard, but also drew conclusions and significance from the exodus from Egypt and chose to join the Israelites and Moses and cast his lot with them.
And this weekend we encountered another miracle. The miracle of a horrifying hostage situation that resolved with all the hostages being freed unharmed. How do we not just hear this horrifying news, but listen and draw lessons from this terrible event?
I’ve been reading about the event constantly since Shabbat ended. I’ve watched Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker speak about the harrowing events. I’ve been reflecting on what these events mean for us.
When we hear about these events we are paralyzed with fear. In fact, living in America, the subtle and quiet threats that pop up on the nightly news create an ominous buzz in our milieu that leave us uncomfortable, restless, and scared. However, we have the option of not just hearing about these events, but also listening.
Hearing is passive. Listening is active.
In the spirit of listening, I find Horn’s words compelling as I think about the events in Colleyville. Responsibility is pervasive across nearly every piece of news or commentary I read about the events on Shabbat.
The events started with an act of responsibility. Rabbi Cytron-Walker felt responsible for his neighbor by welcoming in a threat to the synagogue. In the 11 long hours that the hostages were under threat, a broad coalition of faith leaders gathered in a local middle school. All faiths represented locally came together and took action to support the Jewish community as well. Rabbi Cytron-Walker also spoke about the training and support from the Secure Community Network, (of which Wornick is a member as well) and it was clear that the community in Colleyville felt responsible for its own well being.
Unfortunately, the violent phenomena that make us feel so uneasy are not going to miraculously disappear. If we allow ourselves to simply hear these events in the background we will feel helpless. If we are able to listen, like Yitro, we can be brave, take ownership of our physical and emotional safety and perhaps most importantly, shine a light of responsibility for one another as humans, regardless of our backgrounds as the foundation of a free and safe American society.