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Texas Goosebumps

01/20/2022 07:10:00 PM


Our local community, the larger Jewish community, and the larger world, are still reacting to the attack on Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, as a British Muslim Extremist, took the rabbi and three congregants hostage at gunpoint, demanding the release of a terrorist held in a nearby prison. While we are relieved that the hostages were able to escape unharmed, the events still weigh heavily on us. I suspect that each of us sees these events through the prism of our own views and experiences. I’ll begin to share some thoughts below, with more to come on Shabbat morning. An apt Biblical metaphor for our experience, and our response, is found in this week’s Torah portion, in Yitro’s encounter with the Jewish people after their miraculous escape from Egypt.

We read in Exodus 18 that Moses tells Yitro, his father-in-law, all that has befallen the Jewish people “everything that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the LORD had delivered them.”  The text says that Yitro’s response is “Vayichad”- a word whose meaning is not clear.  The most common translation is that he rejoiced. Certainly, we, too, can celebrate a miraculous escape. However, in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a), the sage Samuel says that it means that his skin was filled with goosebumps- that he had an involuntary reaction of alarm. Even though he did not directly experience slavery, plagues, or the splitting of the sea, he experienced a sympathetic response. He felt as if he was there.

We may have had our own goosebumps. As we heard the story, we may have begun by thinking about our own safety and well-being. Is it safe to come to synagogue? In a narrow sense, the answer is yes. Our synagogue takes security very seriously. We have armed, tactically trained SSPD at every Shabbat and Holiday service, and whenever our schools are in session, as well at other key times and events, as well as other security measures that are not as readily visible. Before COVID, our staff and many of our laypeople went through training on different types of incident response. After every incident, we review our procedures based on what has been learned, and we will continue to update training and procedures as appropriate.

Some have suggested that our congregants be armed in services. We’ve consulted on this topic with security experts and professionals, and they have all agreed that the best answer will vary from congregation to congregation in the light of whether it complements or detracts from other measures that might be in place, and whether those bearing those weapons have the high-level training needed to avoid harm to bystanders or friendly fire with law enforcement. One congregant asserted that I don’t need to be armed because I could talk anyone into an unconscious state. In the case of the Texas congregation, law enforcement only entered the building after the hostages had escaped. It was the rabbis’ ability to keep the attacker calm, and then use a chair to disable him, that won the day. Had he tried to shoot the attacker, there is no guarantee of a better outcome. 

In a broader sense, we know that every time we get out of bed, there is some danger involved, but that there has always been a greater risk involved in being Jewish. The most casual read of any book of Jewish history makes that clear.  It is a tragic necessity that every synagogue has to have plans and training. And there is much that we sacrifice in the name of safety. Leaving aside the astonishing financial cost, there is a human cost. A synagogue is supposed to be a sanctuary for troubled souls. The rabbi in Texas was doing exactly what a rabbi is ideally supposed to do, welcoming those in need. Every time we have an unexpected visitor, we have to assess whether they are a potential threat. There are times when our own congregation has turned away (or frightened off) a troubled soul who just wanted to pray, because we had to err on the side of safety.

However, while we must be concerned about our own congregation first, it would be narcissistic to stop there. Yitro does not stop at his own personal goosebumps. He goes on to think about the needs of the entire Jewish people, to guide Moses, and we can do no less. I will have more to share on the broader implications of this moment, in my sermon on Shabbat morning.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784