My zayda — my grandfather — came to America from Russia in 1924 after being a lieutenant in the Red Army during the Russian revolution. Back in the mid-1960s, he would take me to my synagogue in Fort Lee. I would sit with him before and after junior congregation.
Never once did I ever think I would be president of any synagogue, but I find myself president of that one. And never once did I think I would have to be concerned for the safety of the congregation. But as a result of the recent events I find that I must be concerned, and that I am compelled to speak out for my congregation.
The attack in Pittsburgh dovetails with the 80th commemoration of Kristallnacht — the onset of the Holocaust. We Jews have always had, have, and will have enemies who seek to destroy us. The recent past also demonstrates that the righteous of many faiths also are under the same intimidation.
It is too easy to dismiss the forces of darkness as crazy, insane, or mentally defective. Just as the Nazis were rational and purely evil, these people now are rationally motivated to do evil. No amount of vigils, talk, coffee, prayer, demonstrations, or kumbaya will change these evil and violent people from their course of hate against us.
Which reminds of something my Zayda told us. There were no programs in the village he came from. Why? The village organized itself so that if anyone should try to hurt them, they would suffer more than they could possibly gain. It took time, effort, and patience but it made a difference for that village.
The concept of “turning the other cheek” is not a Jewish concept. The right to self-defense is. King Solomon proclaimed and copied in song:
“There is a time to kill and a time to heal… a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.”
There is no doubt that there are times when it is necessary to battle adversaries. Jewish history is filled with examples of preemptive action for self-preservation, from the Purim story to modern Israel. When I was in college, I had friends who were in the Jewish Defense League. My friends and a lot of other JDLers from across the country went to Skokie, Illinois, to oppose the Nazis who had threatened to march through that Jewish neighborhood. One of my friends there said on national television that “if the Nazis march in Skokie, Skokie will be ankle deep in Nazi blood.”
History shows that the Nazis did not march in Skokie.
No doubt that there will be copy-cats. Just this week in New York, there was hate graffiti spray in a synagogue and an attempted fire-bombing of another.
That is why I came to synagogue with a baseball bat on Shabbat. I will not turn the other cheek. I will not have a talk or coffee with evil. I will defend myself, my congregation, and my synagogue. The Jews of Kristallnacht did not defend themselves; maybe if they did this world would be different.
The convergence of recent events and the commemoration of Kristallnacht must be taken as a wakeup call. As the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun. We as Jews have seen this evil before, but we as modern American Jews have been lucky that our generation has been safe and secure. But we have become complacent. We have not had the struggles of my Zayda’s generation. We have not had to defend ourselves. We stand at a pivotal moment for all righteous people.
Which tools are chosen for evil is irrelevant. Our enemies will obtain them to use against us. No amount of legislation will stop their course of hate. Bergen County has seen its share of graffiti and fire-bombings too. Looking to Washington or Trenton for blame or for help is a wasted exercise, as God helps those who help themselves. Already various political elements have taken the attack on us as a means to advance their political agenda. To vilify the tools of our defense serves no one.
We have seen the news coverage. We have read various opinion pieces. All ask that consolation be granted to the families of the departed, a speedy recovery to the injured, praise for the prompt action of the Pittsburgh Police and a few hoping for justice. Not one of these media items even suggested self-defense or the preparation needed for the next attack, which will be coming.
So many of us know how to save another person’s life with the Heimlich maneuver — invented by a Jew. But how many of us know how to save our own lives from the violence that we saw just last week in Pittsburgh if it happened before our own eyes?
The Jews of Kristallnacht did not defend themselves; maybe if they did this world would be different. The convergence of recent events and the commemoration of Kristallnacht must be taken as a wakeup call by all righteous people. As the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun. We as Jews have seen this evil before, but we as modern American Jews have been lucky that our generation has been safe and secure but we have become complacent. We have not had the struggles of my Zayda’s generation, and the need to defend ourselves. We stand at a pivotal moment for all righteous people but in particular for all Jews everywhere.
My baseball bat may be symbolic, but we must be prepared to meet these evil threats with equal — and if necessary, greater force. We cannot rely on others to defend us. For more information, I encourage you to go to the website of Jews for the Preservation of Firearm Ownership, at jpfo.org.
I call on Governor Murphy and the New Jersey State Legislature to level the playing field with our attackers. The police cannot be everywhere all the time. Synagogues and other houses of worship are under huge financial stress as people’s habits change. To ask houses of worship to bear the expense of additional security is not the answer. Many, if not, most functions of religious organizations are shared by volunteers. Defense can be no different.
I ask that the governor prove me wrong and allow people the power to defend themselves. Please make an exception to New Jersey’s restrictive gun laws to permit people to carry to houses of worship for the protection of the righteous. The suggestion that more restrictive gun laws will cure anything is misguided, as these evil people do not confine themselves so neatly. They already break the law; they will just break any new law too in their quest of evil against us. Whether it be a bomb or a knife or a gun, they will be coming.
Most importantly, I ask you — what will you do to defend yourself? For me, I will have my baseball bat, and maybe something stronger. I will not go quietly or be a victim. I will protect myself and my synagogue.
Mark Altschul of Tenafly is a lawyer and the president of the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee .