Dear Temple Ohabei Shalom community,
I write to you with relief and immense gratitude that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and members of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas were reunited with their loved ones last night after being held hostage at the synagogue by a terrorist who entered while they were livestreaming their Shabbat morning service. The Jewish community across the world held our collective breath as we awaited news, praying fervently that the hundreds of law enforcement officials and specially trained hostage negotiation officers would be successful in their mission, and our fellow Jews would emerge physically unharmed. Now we pray for refuat hanefesh – healing of spirit – for Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and those who were held with him at gunpoint, for their families, friends, for the community of Congregation Beth Israel, and for all of us – Klal Yisrael – the People of Israel.
Antisemitism is often called “the oldest hatred,” and though it takes many forms, and as we’ve seen in recent attacks on synagogues it can come from white nationalists or from Muslim fundamentalists, but no matter who perpetrates this violence, it is part of a rising tide of extremism across the world. Jews have been singled out in our holiest places at our holiest times, and we are living with an increased sense of fear and vulnerability.
For several years Temple Ohabei Shalom, along with Jewish communities around the country and across the world, has been working to upgrade and review our security processes and procedures. Thanks to volunteers and staff, we received a federal security grant in 2019 with which we have and will continue to upgrade our security systems. As yesterday’s incident has shown, strong ties between leadership of Jewish communities and law enforcement agencies is crucial to keeping us safe. I am proud that we have very strong relationships with the security professionals at CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish Federation), as well as with the Brookline and Boston Police Departments. We are part of the Secure Community Network, receiving security guidance from these partners as well as the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council). In a message today, the ADL reminded us: “With antisemitism a grave threat not just in the U.S. but to Jewish communities everywhere, we also call on members of the U.S. Senate to immediately act on the confirmation of Dr. Deborah Lipstadt as the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-semitism so she can execute this vital work worldwide. To add your voice to this urgent need, please contact your senators today.”
I want to share with you one of the most moving experiences of witnessing yesterday’s incident unfold from afar: As I was monitoring the situation via Twitter updates, I noticed that an individual had opened up an online space for people from around the world to listen to and lead recitation of Psalms as a way to pray for the safety of the hostages. I was able to scroll through the names of the hundreds of people who had convened in this digital space, and the diversity was incredible. I listened as a woman from Costa Rica tearfully read Psalm 23, and I listened as the convener, @BCWallin (who describes himself in his twitter bio as a Jewish writer and freelancer), recited Psalms in Hebrew and English and invited others to read. While he was chanting, someone else requested to speak and shared the news that the SWAT team had entered the synagogue and had rescued the hostages. The sense of relief and joy was palpable from across the miles, continents, communities, faiths. Tears flowed, deep as the sea our people so miraculously crossed millenia ago. We hold the Exodus story of captivity and redemption in our communal DNA, and we had just read and studied it in yesterday’s Torah portion, Beshallach. When we heard the news of our Jewish siblings held captive in their holy space, our hearts were in our throats as we prayed for them to be able to cross into freedom, and thanks to the heroic efforts of so many, they walked out of the synagogue last night.
Tomorrow is the observance of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He preached that “None of us is free until we are all free.” Thank God, those held at gunpoint this past Shabbat are now free. We must continue the work of ensuring freedom and safety for all people, and tend to the healing of all those who have been hurt by the forces of hatred and selfishness. Dr. King’s life and legacy teaches us the truth we are learning each day in a time of increased hate-fueled violence, and a time of a devastating global pandemic: None of us is safe until all of us are safe.
Tonight begins Tu Bishvat, the celebration of growth and emergent beauty brought forth from seeds because of life-giving warmth, water, and light. Let us be those forces of life and love for one another. In the words of Psalm 126: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” May we, our Jewish people, and all who dwell on earth know joy and healing.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman