Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 21, 2022 / 19 Shevat 5782
Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs is longer than usual, as it wrestles with the actions our community has taken to remain safe both before and after Colleyville, the antisemitism underneath the hostage crisis we witnessed last Shabbat, and the emotional impact that such an event can have on us. I have broken these parts into sections so that you can peruse those areas that most speak to you or to allow you to read the piece in shorter sections.
Reading Time: Ten and a half minutes
Earlier this week, a parent contacted me. The person’s children wanted to know if it was still safe to go to synagogue. It’s heartbreaking and understandable that people would be worried after last week’s hostage situation at Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Watching events unfold in real-time brought up many different emotions. Horror, outrage, fear, sadness, or even numb resignation. Few of us felt all these emotions, but most of us experienced at least one.
How could we not? We all know too well the dark specter of history and how so often Jewish bodies, hearts, and minds have felt unsafe at the hands of a hostile world. For several decades, it was possible to feel that in America, at least, the worst scourges of antisemitism were behind us. That changed after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh. In the intervening years, we have seen a spike in antisemitic rhetoric and attacks that have forced us to acknowledge that those decades of peace were the exception to the terrible rule of Jew hatred.
How do we make sense of Colleyville? What feelings does it give rise to? Can we find a way to properly evaluate the risks we face without losing our way to fear, while resisting a desire to barricade ourselves against a world? Alternatively, we know how many American Jews went into hiding in previous generations, changing our last names in an attempt to blend in with the larger society. What must we do to remain proudly and visibly Jewish without taking undue risks?
There are a plethora of questions about preparedness, antisemitism, community, and our emotional responses. Looked at another way, Colleyville impacts our hearts, minds, and bodies. Which actions should we take? What are we thinking about? How do we feel?
Let’s begin with preparedness for a couple of reasons. We are an action-oriented people, and we have an obligation to address what we can control. Many congregants reached out to me in the aftermath of Colleyville. One question that kept cropping up was “Have you had the same sort of training as Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker?
The American Jewish community took the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue (TOLS) very seriously. CNS was no exception. Our building has been hardened in both visible and invisible ways, like surveillance, electronics, and key card access. We received substantial grant money from the Department of Homeland Security to aid in these upgrades. Before TOLS, we had security guards only during the High Holidays. Now they are a regular part of our synagogue landscaping. These efforts and changes have been continuous and ongoing. Within recent months, the Board of Directors approved new expenditures to further harden our campus.
At the same time, the best security systems are no better than the human factor. Staff had numerous training opportunities on what to do in the case of an active shooter or other infiltrator. We received “book knowledge” about run, hide, fight. Even more important, we engaged in role plays where we had to put into practice what we learned in a classroom setting. Additionally, we dedicated two Shabbatot to training congregants on what to do in a worst-case scenario and walked the building so that people would have concrete plans in their heads on where and how to run, hide, or fight.
Since the Colleyville attack, I have reviewed those lessons, just as an athlete will mentally practice free-throw shots. Mentally rehearsing is almost as effective as physical practice and it seemed important to revisit those skills.
It is also true that some of these skills are perishable. We have already had discussions on creating a new schedule of training, this time with an emphasis on ensuring that this is something congregants can also receive. Reach-outs were made to our security company to reiterate our needs. Fred Rothstein has been in contact with Gene Moss, who is the Portland Jewish Community Security Director.
There would be something terribly wrong if CNS didn’t take all these steps. I am grateful that our community hears this clear mandate and acts upon it.
Understanding the roots of a problem is also important to address that issue. While antisemitism is ancient, the more recent rise in antisemitism in America is real and documented; sometimes, it is quite obvious; other times, antisemitism shows up as a sin of omission. If you followed the news reporting as it unfolded, it is stunning and disturbing how often Colleyville was not portrayed as an antisemitic act of terror and how long it took for many news outlets to name it as such. It took until yesterday for the FBI to finally conclude that Colleyville was an antisemitic act. I am all for being judicious in judgement, but really! The absurdity of delay in this case can only be seen as an example of structural antisemitism. But that’s the perniciousness of antisemitism.
Earlier this week, Bari Weiss tellingly wrote about the antisemitism of omission when she reminded people that the December 10, 2019, attack on a kosher market in Jersey City, NJ did not receive the same sort of coverage or outrage that Colleyville did, even though three Jews were murdered in that attack, while all of the hostages in Texas thankfully survived. Weiss wrote:
“The day after the shooting, I went to the supermarket to do some reporting for a column I expected to publish. Unlike in Pittsburgh, there was not a single flower or condolence card. Just broken glass, and Hasidic Jews working with construction workers to board up the ransacked building, which was riddled with bullet holes. There were no television cameras.
“No one in my social media feeds, to say nothing of mainstream reporters, wanted to look very hard at the killers’ motives or at the responses among some members of the community. In one video I came across, a local woman said that her ‘children are stuck at school because of Jew shenanigans. They are the problem . . . I blame the Jews. We never had a shooting like this until they came.’
“Joan Terrell-Paige, a school official in the city, explained on her Facebook page that the murderers effectively had no choice. The Jews (she called them “brutes”) had caused their killers to murder them… When eleven Jews who look like me were shot by a white supremacist in Pittsburgh, it was a clean story. Here was unadulterated evil mowing down the innocent. But Jews dressed in black hats and strange clothes with obscure accents? The ones in Jersey City or in Monsey or Crown Heights or Williamsburg or Borough Park?
“These are imperfect victims. They are forgotten and overlooked because they are not the right kind of Jews. And because they weren’t beaten or killed by the right kind of antisemites.”
That’s a rather damning indictment of how the larger society will only address the “right sort” of antisemitism. When an act of evil interferes with other narratives, however, the message is that antisemitism is acceptable.
In our own city, Portland, where incidents of antisemitism continually occur in our schools and where any and all actions by Israel seem worthy of condemnation, we have much work to be done. While CNS and the larger Jewish community continue to take concrete steps to augment security and training, we need to continually educate the larger community. Threatening American Jews because of Israeli actions is antisemitic. Intimidating Jewish students because of politics around the world is antisemitic. Repeating stereotypes about Jews is antisemitic. That includes negative tropes, such as Jews are murderers, Jews control the world, Jews planned 9/11, Jewish are selfish, and so on. But it also includes positive cliches, such as Jews are smarter than others, or are good at business, or are the best lawyers. While Jews are more likely to repeat these positive stereotypes, research has also shown that they are dangerous for numerous reasons. Most applicable to Colleyville is the manner in which even positive stereotypes are acts of depersonalization, for this is the first step in turning real people into abstractions. It is much easier to attack an abstraction than a real person, which is one of the factors that the Texas hostages had to overcome to stay alive. They needed their captor, Malik Faisal Akram, to see them as flesh-and-blood people.
Community and Values
That is just as important among better-intentioned people. If we genuinely want Portland to be a city of tolerance, we all have an obligation to build connections with those who don’t look or think like us. We can take pride that CNS has been involved in all sorts of communal outreach for decades. Unfortunately, there is no expiration date for these efforts, so we must constantly renew our commitments.
This also raises a terrible contradiction. Our religion has always emphasized the importance of hospitality and of helping the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. When Rabbi Cytron-Walker unwittingly let in Mr. Akram, he was acting out of religious duty and human decency. We need to be secure, but if we allow our security to come at the cost of our values, then the forces of darkness have prevailed. If we decide not to attend services or participate in communal activities, evil will be victorious. If we can’t overcome our fears and let them guide us without paralyzing us, then so much of what we cherish disappears.
That’s why it is important to realize that reaching out and welcoming in also keep us secure. I feel very grateful for the communal outreach we received after last week’s hostage situation because it was an affirmation of the power of these values. Our dear friends at Bilal Mosque sent us the following message:
“We are deeply saddened and shocked to see what happened at a Synagogue in Colleyville Texas yesterday. On behalf of the local Muslim, community we would like to reach out to all of our Interfaith friends, especially to our Jewish friends and say we are SORRY, we are really SORRY.
Whoever did this cannot belong to any faith group.
No scripture will justify this, no religious belief will ask for this – simply won’t, simply can’t.
Once again, we are truly sorry for this – let’s come all together and pray such that we all can collectively live together with peace and harmony.
Shahriar / Mohammed / Mostafa on behalf of Bilal Mosque”
In continued correspondence with our friends at Bilal, Shahriar also wrote “Rabbi Kosak,
You, personally, and the Jewish community, have always been a rock for ours and continue to be. I do not have words to adequately express my disgust at events and people that do what was done.
What upsets me even more is that these are people who have come to a part of the world that gives them SO many opportunities at so many levels.
To better themselves, to understand their faith at a deeper level, to be more educated, to do so much more, and YET they resort to madness such as these.
Once again, accept my apologies, and the feeling of helplessness in not being able to do more and DO pass these words and sentiments to others.
Be safe my friend, hope and pray that we are able to meet soon, and the best of the best to you and yours,
I found the above correspondence so encouraging. We are not alone when bad things happen to the Jewish community, nor are our Black, Brown, and other minority partners. We stand together and that not only keeps us all safer, but it also provides an important message for our hearts. There are so many kind and well-intentioned people out there who stand with us. Let’s bask in that warmth.
Yet it is also true that many congregants are feeling worried, anxious, or even overcome by fear. Those feelings are all legitimate and understandable. Simultaneously, once we have begun to act on the messages those emotions provide us by increasing our preparedness and addressing underlying issues such as antisemitism, the emotions no longer serve us. Sometimes they can actually harm us by making it harder to maintain a healthy perspective and diminishing our sense of well-being.
We all know how draining the past two years have been. Terrible incidents like the one in Colleyville take an additional toll. If you or someone you know is struggling in the wake of last week, please reach out to our clergy team, a trusted friend or confidante, or a professional. No one should suffer alone.
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.