To say that the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, was, a “terrorism-related” incident, as the FBI did, and not an act of antisemitism, is ludicrous. But the media ran with it, and after both the FBI and the media backed off, they turned the story into why, months earlier, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker got a letter telling him that his contract would not be renewed at the end of his term.
On erev Shabbat, Rabbi Debra Orenstein opened up a discussion about the incident, and many spoke up.
Some said that when they first heard the news, they felt sort of numb. One man said that the attacker must have walked past 30 churches and probably a mosque or two before knocking on the glass door of the synagogue, so how could that not be an antisemitic act? He added that he was surprised that given Texas’s relaxed laws on carrying a concealed weapon, how was it that nobody in the synagogue was carrying one?
Truth be told, I know more than a half dozen Orthodox synagogues down South and in the Midwest where rabbis, and some congregants, carry concealed weapons to shul. Although it’s much more difficult to get a concealed carry permit in the Northeast, I know two or three Rabbis and cantors up North who also carry concealed weapons to shul. My hope is that they are well trained, or it could exacerbate an already dangerous situation.
So how do we respond to all of these attacks? Lock the doors? Don’t allow anybody we don’t know to come to services? Have more security and hire local police to stand guard?
None of these are answers for the Jewish people.
Jews always have been the strongest defenders of the underdog, the champions of people’s freedom, the biggest supporters of human rights, the most giving, the most welcoming, and yet the most persecuted people throughout history.
Emma Lazarus, who was a Sephardic Jew, an American poet, and an activist for Jewish causes, wrote “The New Colossus.” That poem, written in 1883, is engraved on a bronze plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
The sentiments in it are strikingly Jewish. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me…”
We sit at the seder on Passover and recite words that many scholars believe were written in the first century of the Common Era “Kol dichfin yeitei v’yeichol…” “All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat…”
If those scholars are correct, then even Jesus and his disciples recited those very words at their Passover seders every year, and that includes the Last Supper.
But the welcoming aspect of the Jewish people’s existence goes all the way back to the first Jew in history, Abraham, in the book of Genesis, Chapter 18. There, Abraham sits outside his tent — his home— in the heat of the day, three days after he circumcised himself (I know you’re groaning now thinking of that, but this piece needed a bit of comic relief) and he sees three men standing near his tent. He runs to them, washes their feet, invites them to sit in the shade of a tree, and calls to Sarah to prepare her finest meats, her finest cheeses and cakes, for these strangers.
It doesn’t matter who these strangers were. What matters is how they were received.
Abraham’s kindness, generosity, and hospitality are the inspiration and motivation for the actions of the Jewish people today.
When we marry we stand under a chuppah — the wedding canopy. It has no walls. Even though I add some modern thoughts when I officiate at weddings, these open walls represent Abraham’s tent, which was open to relatives, friends, and strangers, no matter where they come from.
Let’s take that a step further because it’s not intent, it’s concept.
The walls of our homes always have been open to all people, regardless of race, creed, nationality, religion, or national origin, no matter their station in life.
We’re not going to shut our doors, close our eyes, or silence our hearts now!
Hazan Lenny Mandel, who also is an ordained rabbi, has been the cantor at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson for 25 years. He is an ardent Zionist, a raging champion of Jewish causes, and stood up against injustice in many non-Jewish causes as well.