Last Friday, August 12, when Salman Rushdie was stabbed many times by a young man from Fairview who had a knife and a grudge and now has no future, Rabbi Charlie Savenor and his wife, Julie Walpert, were about 75 feet from the stage.
The experience was “surreal,” Rabbi Savenor said when I called him on Tuesday. Their sons were about to finish summer camp, and the Savenors, who live on the Upper West Side, were spending those last few days with friends in Chautauqua. “It sounded like an amazing opportunity to relax, to reflect, to benefit from the lectures and the music,” he said. “The setting is really beautiful.
“It sounded like a Limmud conference, but for everyone. It sounded great.”
Limmud is a series of talks and workshops, given around the world, that engage Jews from various parts of the Jewish world in content that’s genuinely smart, taught by teachers who are for-real interesting, even gifted. Chautauqua is a town built around an idea, and that idea involves real intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual engagement and growth. Both are of course have far more complexity than any thumbnail description can provide, but both center on authentic intellectual and emotional connection, and it probably is fair to say that Limmud is Chautauqua’s lovechild.
This was the Savenors’ first time at Chautauqua; they saw David Isay, the founder of MacArthur-genius-fellowship-winning Story Corps creator (who perhaps incidentally is Jewish). Isay’s talk was “really inspiring,” Rabbi Savenor said. “It was about recording the human experiences, and providing opportunities for reflection using conversation for connection, to bridge differences.” It’s about listening. “And in a place like Chautauqua, listening coming naturally.
“Maybe being in nature invites natural listening.”
The highlight of the week was supposed to be Salman Rushdie; he was to be introduced by Henry Reese, the co-founder of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, and then the two were to sit onstage and have a conversation that late summer morning. “They were going to talk about how America and other democracies can support, give asylum, and give voice to political writers,” Rabbi Savenor said. Mr. Rushdie, who had been the subject of an Iranian fatwa — a death sentence, to be executed by anyone who got close enough to him to kill him — issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, was going to tour the country for the City of Asylum, to encourage cities to help protect artists from similar judgments.
Did you get to hear Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Reese? “No, no, no,” Rabbi Savenor said.
Instead, Mr. Reese ended up with his face, including one of his eyes, badly bruised. Mr. Rushdie was very seriously injured, but the latest reports tell us that he will survive. By Tuesday he was conscious and talking. But it’s likely that he’ll lose the sight in one of his eyes.
Rabbi Savenor said that he, Julie, and their friends, who live in Chautauqua, got to the outdoor amphitheater early, because they knew seats would go fast. Rushdie and Reese “walked onto the stage at 10:45, just as planned, and to really warm applause they took their seats, facing one another, and almost immediately somebody jumped onto the stage and began to pummel Salman Rushie,” he said.
“I saw the alleged assailant,” he said; lawyers had advised that it’s best to use the word “alleged,” although what he saw was clear. “I saw his arm going up and down. I didn’t know he had a knife.
“I had my phone camera ready, because I wanted to take a picture, to show look, here I am at the lecture, how cool is that? And how can we as Americans support these values and rights that we have?
“And then the attacker jumped on stage, and time froze for about five seconds. So I took a picture, and then I thought that I should record it, because it was so unexpected, and it was happening in real time.
“But I took only five seconds of video” — later he uploaded it to Twitter — “because my wife and our friends and I decided, in those five seconds, that we should leave. We didn’t know if there was anyone else, if there were any other attackers, or if he was alone.
“Anyone who was in New York for 9/11, or in Jerusalem during a terror attack, the first thing that crosses your mind is whether the assailant is working alone.
“My heart went out to Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Reese, who were being assaulted, but on a human level, we were in danger. I have great respect and admiration for the people who were in front and jumped on the stage.
“And if you want a misha berach, I’m your guy!”
Then, “within three minutes, there was a general announcement that everyone had to evacuate,” he continued. “People left quietly and quickly. There was just one thing that you could hear people saying in the silence. They were just saying ‘This doesn’t happen here.’ ‘This isn’t what happens here.’ ‘This doesn’t happen here.’
“But it did. It does.”
After the assault, everything at Chautauqua closed, Rabbi Savenor said. “It went into lockdown for the next couple of hours. Before it happened, I don’t think I’d seen a police officer or a security guard, but all of a sudden, there was a police presence. They were everywhere.
“After Shabbat dinner — and there is a very nice, very committed Jewish community in Chautauqua — we walked back to the amphitheater, just to reclaim the space. And to our dismay, there was a cleaning crew scrubbing the stage.
“It was bizarre, that this place, which had been a place to share ideas for nearly 150 years, had become a crime scene. It was jarring and upsetting to start the day expecting wisdom, insight, and maybe a little inspiration, and instead to see this attack on Chautauqua’s values, and maybe on America’s.”
But that’s where Rabbi Savenor’s own worldview comes in. “There’s another layer to this,” he said.
Charles Savenor grew up in suburban Boston, went to Brandeis, got smicha at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and worked in various Jewish institutions including, most recently, Park Avenue Synagogue, where he was the director of congregational development for eight years. (It is fair, I think, judging by conversations I’ve had at weddings and kiddushes over the course of many years, to say that he was the beloved director of congregational development.) He just left that position to become the executive director of Civic Spirit.
The organization “provides training and promotes civic education in faith-based schools — that’s Jewish, Catholic, Christian, and Islamic,” he said. (Catholics don’t like to be called Christian in this context, he explained, because their educational systems and world-views are so different, and in this context Christian tends to imply evangelical.)
“We have a three-pronged approach; we cultivate civic belonging, democratic fluency, and civic skills.”
Civic Spirit is only four years old, and it’s just out of its pilot phase, Rabbi Savenor said; it has had programs in north Jersey schools, so we’ll write about it soon.
“One thing I took out of what happened at Chautauqua is that in the midst of feeling unsettled and a little disillusioned, I came out of it more committed than ever to what Civic Spirit represents,” Rabbi Savenor said. “That’s creating a society where people can work together across divides and can disagree agreeably. Everyone is a stakeholder.
“Ultimately, civic values are complimentary to our spiritual and religious ones. And ultimately, that’s what resilience is all about.”