If you’ve been to Europe you know that the vast majority of Jewish institutions there have armed guards at their doors. Certainly any large and recognizably Jewish organization – a synagogue, a museum – will have an armed guard. This past summer we were in Prague, and on Shabbat morning the city’s main shul had two guards outside, one actually giving each and every person who wanted to enter a full interview (where are you from, what is your Hebrew name, do you belong to a congregation, etc). Along the same lines, if you’ve been to Israel, you know that many public places have armed guards at their entrances, to include pubs, food stores, shopping malls, let alone the museums and shuls.
I’ve been wondering if this is the place where the American Jewish community is headed. A few years ago it would have been inconceivable to most American Jews that they would have to set up a security station in the entranceway of their synagogues, JCCs, or Federations. But over the last two plus years virtually every Jewish organization in America has increased its security, from simple locks on doors to the physical presence of an armed guard, to metal detectors. Last winter I went to Shabbat services in Florida, and passed through three stages of security before I entered the sanctuary – at the parking lot entrance, walking through a metal detector to enter the building, and then the presence of an armed guard.
In my synagogue we’ve gone from almost no security two and a half years ago to an armed guard on duty at all times and an ID scan requirement for entry. We have panic buttons on the bimah. We’ve run active shooter drills with our Hebrew school children and our day care staff. With each successive assault – whether on a synagogue, a home, an individual, a grocery store – we grow more concerned, and more careful. And the simple truth is, our members are scared. My synagogue is about as visible as a Jewish institution can be – a large building, right off a major highway, easy access from multiple directions. Oh, and since our name begins with the letter ‘b,’ we are right at the top of the phone listing.
I must confess, full disclosure, I am not quite sure what to do with the various statements of condemnation and outrage that are released after these antisemitic incidents take place. After a while it seems like they are filled with the same stock phrases and say the same things, things that we all know. Of course this is horrible, heinous, awful. Of course we stand in solidarity with those affected. Of course we must be vigilant. Of course we must reject hate and embrace tolerance. Of course we are thinking of those whose lives have been changed for ever, and yes, we are actually praying for them. I suppose it all must be said, and perhaps it even helps in some way. I just worry that it is almost starting to sound like a form letter, and we just cut and paste the date and place where the tragedy occurred.
And yet we can not turn away, or become indifferent, in the face of these repeated and hateful acts. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and I am afraid tragedy fatigue might be as well. These antisemitic incidents can all too easily be lost in the ever increasing national plague of gun violence. The truth is, they can even become lost in themselves, one after another. How much can one pay attention to? How much can one’s soul truly and deeply feel?
We must be vigilant, and we can control that. Our campus is significantly – significantly! – safer that it was two years ago, even a year ago. We have been proactive, and we have embraced the consideration of worst case scenarios, something that is necessary in today’s world. We have been willing to inconvenience ourselves, put ourselves out a bit here and there as individuals, to increase the security and safety for all. We are doing this communally as well, and virtually every morning I receive an emailed security briefing from a trusted security expert about what is happening around the country, and in our community. This email is sent to every Jewish organization in Baltimore.
We must also continue to speak out, to raise awareness, to keep each antisemitic incident and comment in the public eye. And while doing that to remember that this is not happening in a vacuum. Incidents of antisemitism are treated as hate crimes, and hate can extend to many other minority groups, whether Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, the LGBTQ community, and the list could go on and on. What we must remember is that one minority group will not be spared while another is attacked. Ultimately hate and prejudice become like a viscous scum, seeping through the streets and affecting everyone. Jews are not hated in a vacuum. Instead, Jews are hated along with other groups that are hated.
My last thought after this overly long posting: I am hopeful. When the Pittsburgh shooting happened, the response was over whelming and powerful. One of the most touching experiences I had during those difficult days came from receiving hundreds of hand written letters from members of a local church, each note telling us we were loved, respected, and cared for. Later that day, my neighbor walked down the street a ways to greet me, offering me words of support and condolence.
The vast majority of people are good, kind, and caring. The common humanity that binds us all together is more powerful than hate or prejudice, small mindedness or fear. We must remind one another of this everyday, as we continue to work – together – to create a world of justice, tolerance, and peace.