Sydney under siege
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Sydney under siege

A personal reflection

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The Jacobson family. From left, Emily, now 2 1/2, Lisa, Paul, and Hannah, now 4 1/2. The family spent August vacationing in and revisiting Australia.

On Sunday evening, in the midst of putting our daughters to bed, our cell phones began buzzing with messages from local friends, directing our attention to a most troubling incident in the heart of Sydney’s central business district.

Reports from television and online media offered varying perspectives – but the truth was that Sydney was under siege, and as many as 50 innocent Sydneysiders were being held hostage in the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place.

Throughout our time together in Sydney, the two of us, along with our friends and family, enjoyed many cups of coffee and hot cocoa at the Lindt Cafe. Martin Place is only three train stops from Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, including world-famous Bondi, where Lisa was raised, and where Paul, who was born in the United States, spent the first seven years of his career as rabbi at Emanuel Synagogue in Woollahra.

When we woke up on Monday morning, after a night of restless sleep, a close friend’s message on Facebook summarized our feelings. She wrote, “Sydney isn’t really sleeping tonight.” A Sydney friend now living in London echoed this sentiment, as did we, here in New Jersey.

Though the siege would be resolved by late Monday morning, our hearts ached for the families of the victims (two hostages were murdered and four others were injured; the police also shot and killed the hostage-taker), our own family and friends in Australia who were exposed to this terror, and for the vast percentage of Australian society who still support, promote, and wish to sustain a free, open-minded, multicultural Australia.

To be clear, this siege wasn’t an anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish, or anti-Christian attack. It was an incident where one self-proclaimed radical Islamic cleric, with a history of perpetrating obscene violence, including taking part in murdering his ex-wife and incinerating his body, took his personal beliefs to an extreme level. The ongoing problems are that there are other people, the world over, who operate from an ideology of fundamentalist extremism, and that most of us prefer to remain blind to this painful reality.

As a case in point, in August we had the opportunity to travel with our daughters on vacation to Australia. While enjoying an evening with friends in Melbourne, our conversation turned to recent events in Israel and the rise of ISIS. One of our Aussie “mates” thought it was farfetched to believe that an episode like what we were seeing on the news at that time could happen on Australian shores. We argued otherwise.

Fast forward to September’s raids against Islamic terrorists in Redfern, and now this week’s incident in downtown Sydney, and we are all witnesses, once again, to the dangers and threats that the free world now is facing.

There is a line in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Miketz, that summarizes our emotions. Pharaoh awakens from a nightmare where seven emaciated cows devour seven healthy ones, and where seven thin ears of grain devour seven healthy and full ears of grain. Torah tells us that when Pharaoh awoke in the morning va-ti-paeim rucho – his spirit was troubled. Recognizing that va-ti-paeim has the same root as the word for pa-amon – a bell – Targum Onkelos suggests that Pharaoh’s spirit was agitated. It was knocking inside of him like a bell.

As we consider the events in downtown Sydney, our spirits are troubled, knocking inside of us like a bell. And they should be. In the Torah, Pharaoh called upon Joseph to interpret his dreams, to give him a much-needed wake-up call. But who will be our Joseph? Who will rouse us from our collective indifferent slumber?

In times like these, most people ask, “What can we do? How can we respond?” We have to begin by acknowledging the efforts of the New South Wales Police Force, who worked to insure a minimal number of casualties in what otherwise could have been an even more horrifying and tragic episode. We have to defend and promote the values upon which our free, open, democratic, and multicultural societies, like America and Australia, are based. And we must refrain from categorizing and labeling one another.

Thankfully, not every person of faith, and certainly not every Muslim, expresses his or her ideology in a manner akin to that of the Lindt Cafe gunman. We have been privileged to meet and personally become acquainted with Muslims who are as interested in the pursuit of peace as we are. There are loud voices of intolerance and hate, but there are even more people throughout the world who still believe, as we do, in the positive potential of a world built and sustained by dialogue, trust, and peaceful interaction.

In one of the most heartwarming stories to come out of this week’s incident in Sydney, a young woman named Rachael Jacobs was sitting next to a Muslim woman on the train who, fearing for her life, began to remove her hijab. Ms. Jacobs turned to her and said “Leave it on. I’ll ride with you.” Jacobs’ comments led to the beginning of #illridewithyou, an effort throughout Sydney that led to posts from non-Muslims offering rides, and offering to sit next to Muslims on public transit, to help ensure their safety.

We are not shocked or surprised by the events in Sydney this week. That it happened in Sydney reminds us that it can happen anywhere, and that we have to rededicate ourselves to building bridges, fostering dialogue, and learning more about one another, what we believe, how we think and feel. Only our own nurtured and established relationships will stand us in good stead in the coming storm that awaits us all.

This is no dream. This is our painful reality, and we would do well to recognize it.

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