Standing here tonight, on this bima, in this sanctuary which has been my spiritual home for nearly ten years, I can’t help but feel a little heartsick— for all of the reasons that you might imagine. Life is with people, as the saying goes— and while I wouldn’t normally debate quality versus quantity, there is a certain emptiness here tonight, without you all sitting here with us, without the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder.
Last Saturday morning, when my friend texted me that a “colleague was being held hostage on Facebook live,” I didn’t get what she was saying at first— I thought she was using “held hostage” sort of metaphorically: I imagined some well intentioned colleague doing Torah study or Shabbat morning services over Facebook live, and so many participants having questions or asking for more, that they just wouldn’t let the rabbi sign off.
Ha. If only.
The reality, as we all came to know over the course of last Shabbat, was far graver than that. For close to an hour, before the feed cut out, I watched a livestream of an empty bima, in front of the ark, with the background noise of a man yelling. It was nearly impossible to make out the words, but the intent was clear.
As we enter into this first Shabbat “Post Colleyville'' as it were, I want to offer a few reflections. I offer these to you not as fully formed notes of nechemta— of comfort, because I’m just not there yet- because this felt personal.
When many of us gathered together last Saturday evening for Havdalah, and to share in a communal moment of prayer while we all held our breaths, I said something that I then perseverated on for hours afterwards—reflecting on the fact that a rabbi was currently sitting in the sanctuary of his synagogue, along with three congregants, with a person holding them hostage, Isaid: “This is a rabbi’s worst nightmare”
I signed off— and immediately wished I hadn’t said it in quite that way, worried that perhaps I’d be misunderstood, that maybe everyone thought I meant “This is my worst nightmare” and what about the congregation— the other hostages, and the Jewish community at large?
With a little time and distance, I say it again: what happened last Saturday was indeed every rabbi’s worst nightmare, for all of the reasons you might imagine, and maybe for a few others that have been uncovered over the course of this past week.
It remains every rabbi’s worst nightmare, despite the seemingly “happy” ending.
I am proud to be a member of a burgeoning South County Interfaith Clergy Association— this is a group of clergy from as far north as Lenox, and as far south as Connecticut who, over the course of the pandemic, have begun to meet for shared collegiality, and to discuss how we might build bridges of connection. I will share that many did reach out to express their solidarity with the Jewish community, and heartache that this happened.
But more broadly– there was something notably different this time— for as much as this story captivated our attention over the course of the week, it went unnoticed and uncommented upon by many others. Why that is, I can only take guesses at: it is true that folks and institutions are burnt out; our capacity for compassion and care, and reactivity is completely emptied after two years of pandemic living, of watching as acts of violence and discrimination tear across so many communities in this country. I do not underestimate nor begrudge anyone who simply felt frozen in response- unable to speak out.
But, at the risk of being slightly cynical, I cannot help but wonder if author Dara Horn’s thesis in her recent book “People Love Dead Jews” might not be just beneath the surface: was this incident somehow less terrible because the hostages walked out alive? Horn’s basic thesis: “People love dead Jews, living Jews, not so much.”
Connected with the responses we’ve seen locally and nationally, I want to name the utter whitewashing of antisemitism from this story. It was days suspended in time, watching as headline after news story insisted that this attack was not in any way specifically related to the Jewish community— stories that did not feel it noteworthy that the hostages were a rabbi and two congregants praying in a synagogue on a Shabbat morning. For the life of me, I cannot come up with any reasonable explanation for how any individual or institution could watch the events at Congregation Beth Israel unfold and say “this has nothing to do with antisemitism.” The gunman quite literally believed that Jews control the world— even demanding that Rabbi Cytron-Walker connect him with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue, because as he saw it, she was effectively “the chief rabbi of America.” The irony is not lost on me that on the one hand, the trope of Jewish control, especially of “New York Jews” was at play, while on the other hand, this person saw a female rabbi, who is also a person of color as the one who held the keys to unlocking his demands.
As Dara Horn wrote in her book, ““The insane conspiracy theories that motivate people who commit antisemitic violence reflect a fear of real freedom: a fondness for tyrants, an aversion to ideas unlike their own, and most of all, a casting-off of responsibility for complicated problems. None of this is a coincidence.”
There is one last piece of this story, that quite literally took my breath away— the piece that perhaps is the more personal end for each rabbi, cantor, educator, Jewish professional– all of us who walk into synagogues as our place of employment every single day, and that is this:
Rabbi Cytron-Walker and his fellow hostages were not rescued. They saved themselves.
This past Monday, I sat watching the first interview that my colleague, Rabbi Charlie as he is called by his congregants, gave on CBS news— How did he stay so calm, they wondered? I nodded along, as he described how in our rabbinic training, we are taught to be a “non-anxious presence”.
What happened, they asked, that finally led to them running free and unharmed out of the back door of the sanctuary?
Somehow, imagining that the FBI and police involved in the 10 hour long standoff had “saved” them had been a comfort to me— something I didn’t realize, until I heard him describe the buildup in those final moments, sensing his captors agitation, and then- describing what he had learned in the active threat trainings put on by the Secure Communities Network, Rabbi Charlie said “I made sure that the two men with me were ready to run, I picked up a chair and threw it at him, and we ran.”
As Rabbi Mike Rothbaum so aptly wrote yesterday: “"...it wasn’t armaments that saved the captors. Not guns, or guards, or even technological security systems. “We escaped,” wrote Jeffrey Cohen, one of the hostages, in a post on Facebook. “We weren’t released or freed.” In other words, what saved the hostages in Beth Israel was a calm, kind presence and smart thinking.
You might say that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with love in his heart, patience and the ability to throw a chair when it counts."
Truly, every rabbi's worst nightmare: to wonder if we would have that same calm presence, and remember what we had learned in that training– which here at Hevreh, we all participated in in 2019 when the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires provided for all of the Berkshire congregations. To sit and wonder, would we be able to keep it together for the precious individuals who make up our congregation, who we welcome to our sanctuaries and want them to feel safe and at home— would we have the presence of mind to navigate those hours together.
I share these reflections with you all tonight in a spirit of honesty and of knowing that Rabbi Charlie did what any of us would do—and tonight, he is getting ready to stand back at the bima, and welcome his congregation back to their spiritual home, as they begin to walk a long road toward wholeness and healing.
I share these reflections with you, because I want you to know that sanctuary is not just this literal place, but a spiritual aspiration of wholeness, safety, and ease: so many people in our world do not enjoy that privilege; so many people live in a space of brokenness, danger, and anxiety.
We have the sacred obligation to one another— of showing up and speaking out. To look to what happened last week as a renewed call to partnership with our broader community, to calling people in (rather than calling them out) and asking them to stand alongside us in dismantling the intertwined systems of white supremacy and antisemitism that threaten us.
This week in our Torah portion, we encounter the story of Moses and his father in law Jethro, who is a midianite priest, which is to say that he himself is not part of B’nai Yisrael. Moses comes to his father-in-law, completely overwhelmed by the needs of the community. With great wisdom and sensitivity, Jethro says to him:
“What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you and you cannot handle it alone.”
Like Moses and Jethro, our fates are intertwined with our brothers and sisters of different faiths and ethnicities. We can’t fix what is broken alone, and we won’t fix what’s broken by hardening our exterior, locking our doors, or shutting out the world. This is a moment for reaching out, knowing that the burden of moving forward is lightened when we are in deep community with others— it is my deepest hope that a message of solidarity and hope be shared in churches and mosques and among people of faith across the country.
Tonight, it is my hope and prayer that Hevreh, and all of the Jewish communities coming together over the course of Shabbat will find meaning in these hours of rest and reflection. May Rabbi Charlie and his congregation find deep peace and rest on this Shabbat, as they begin to heal and go forward in strength.