The truth that Jews all over the world are connected to each other is as true when the story is about grief and terror and hate as it is when it’s a story of joyously rediscovered long-lost relatives.
There was a terrorist attack on a synagogue in a small town in eastern Germany on Yom Kippur; no one inside the shul, but two people outside it were randomly targeted and slaughtered. One of the people inside the synagogue, kept safe by the strength of the door and the incompetence of the attacker, grew up in Bergen County.
Jeremy Borovitz, the son of Neal Borovitz, the rabbi emeritus of Avodat Shalom in River Edge, and his wife, Rabbi Rebecca Blady, were at the shul; they had brought a group of about 20 Americans with them.
It was not at all obvious that they’d be there in the first place. Rabbi Blady, newly ordained by Yeshivat Maharat, and Rabbi Borovitz, who had lived and worked in Europe for most of his adult life — particularly, perhaps ironically, given what’s going on, in Ukraine — helping build local Jewish communities, recently had moved to Berlin. They’re leading a grassroots Hillel-affiliated program called Base, which offers cultural and spiritual programming for young people. (He’s 32 and she’s 29, so they’re firmly entrenched in that demographic.) They decided to go to the shul in Halle, a town of some 240,000 people, about 550 of them Jews, because they knew that many Jewish communities in Germany are small and could benefit from the energy their group would bring.
The congregation meets in what once was a funeral home because the once-grand synagogue building was destroyed during Kristallnacht; that already gave the day an odd feeling, Rabbi Borovitz said. There were somewhere between 50 and 80 people at the service, according to various reports; the shocked participants were not sure.
The murderer, Stephan Balliet, 27, tried to break into the synagogue; he carried a rifle and ammunition, along with other military gear. He streamed the attack with a camera mounted on his head; he shouted curses and threw explosives, but neither broke down the shul’s doors.
“We were in the middle of the Torah reading,” Rabbi Borovitz said. “It was the third aliyah; I think it was the part about the goat that was sent to Azazel.” That’s the scapegoat; the one of the pair of goats that was not to be sacrificed, as the other one was, but instead laden with the community’s sins and sent off to wander in the wilderness.
Then the congregation heard explosions and the security guard, who was staring at the monitor, saw what was happening. The women climbed down from the balcony, the congregation gathered around the monitor, they heard other popping sounds from outside, and the police — who had not been stationed outside, but responded to the alarm — came, and told them to stay put. “So we kept davening,” Rabbi Borovitz said.
How did it feel when the shooting started?
“In the moment, I don’t think I was feeling anything,” he said. “I was just reacting. I was just concerned with keeping our group as safe as possible. I can’t say enough good things about the Jewish community and the security guards. They barricaded the door, and in the end the door held.
“And that was a miracle. I felt God on that day. And it was Yom Kippur.”
The murderer killed two people, Jana Lange, 40, and a man identified so far only as Kevin S., 20. His live feed caught him saying such things as “Jews are the root of all problems,” among a lot of other anti-Semitic, misogynist, and xenophobic rants. He also repeatedly called himself a loser. The feed was posted on Twitch, it was up for about 35 minutes, and had an estimated 2,200 views.
Meanwhile, the Jews inside the synagogue eventually were evacuated to a hospital. “We did Ne’ilah in the hospital cafeteria,” Rabbi Borovitz said.
Ne’ilah is always an emotional service, the culmination of the 25 hours of fasting, reflection, repentance, and davening; it’s the gates closing on Yom Kippur, punctuated by the shofar and leading to whatever might follow. On that day, “It was really emotional,” Rabbi Borovitz said. “And there were two emotions. One was that we were heartbroken at the loss of life, and the other was that we were grateful to be alive.
“Both of those emotions were playing in our heads, and I am still struggling to put together how we are feeling. I know that I am sad, and I am grateful, and I am shocked.”
Since the shooting, the murderer has confessed. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes that he “made a ‘very comprehensive’ confession during an hours-long interrogation, according to a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office in Karlsruhe, who spoke to reporters on Friday.
“He confirmed far-right and anti-Semitic motives” for the attack, the spokesman also said, the AFP news agency reported.”
JTA also wrote that the murderer is reported to have “told German investigators that he received approximately $800 from an anonymous online donor before the attack.”
According to the German publication Der Spiegel, JTA continues, the gunman “had received the money in the form of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin from an unknown person with whom he communicated on the internet, according to his defense attorney Hans-Dieter Weber.
“Weber also told the publication that Balliet denied being a neo-Nazi in his interrogation by German authorities. Balliet claimed to have acted alone and made the weapons used in the attack himself from cheap materials.”
Meanwhile, “we are providing our whole group access to a trauma specialist,” Rabbi Borovitz said. “We have had help from the JDC” — that’s the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — “and the German Jewish community. We are very grateful for this help.”
What can the American Jewish community do to help? “At a certain point, we will have a fundraising campaign,” Rabbi Borovitz said. “If people want to give money, that’s great. And prayers are great.
“If people want to daven for us, that’s great. If people can love each other more — that is all that we can do. Love each other more.
“What we don’t need is for people to get on planes and come here,” he added. “It is very frustrating when that happens. Then we have to find things for them to do.”
What will he do?
“Personally, I will stay in Germany, and keep doing the things that we are doing,” Rabbi Borovitz said. “This is important work.
“In some ways, things here have to change. In other ways, they shouldn’t change, and we can’t let them change.” In other words, the Jewish presence in Germany cannot end, even if the ways that the community has to protect itself must be different, in response to different social conditions.
“We will build our sukkah in a beer garden,” Rabbi Borovitz said. “There obviously will be a much higher police presence, but we will go on living our lives.
“We have to go on living our lives.”