I went to synagogue today.
A couple of weeks ago, a terrorist, let his name be erased, traveled all the way from Britain to Texas with a ‘plan’ to free another terrorist from prison. He bought a gun from a street criminal and drove to the town of Colleyville, fifteen miles from Fort Worth. After taking tea with the rabbi of a local synagogue, the terrorist took him and three other Jews hostage at Shabbat services. After eleven hours of threats and anti-Semitic ravings, the rabbi threw a chair, the hostages ran, and the FBI opened fire, neutralizing the terrorist.
Speaking of erasure, it took days for government and law enforcement to recognize the assault as a terrorist act and anti-Semitic hate crime.
Depressed about how quickly America forgot, I heard a call to worship. I decided to go to shul to vote with my feet and my heart.
I am not much of a virtual worshipper. I think of ‘virtual’ as almost—or not—real. Just because an experience is easy to have, does not mean that it is real. I believe in G-d. I do not believe in hiding from terrorists or COVID-19.
On Saturday morning I put on a Ralph Lauren gray suit, Oxford shirt, yellow tie, and black shoes. I clipped my orange and black Princeton Center for Jewish Life kippah to the back of my head.
There is a big steel door at the outside entrance to our temple, with anti-vehicle bollards on the other side. When I reached the door, I handed my tallis bag to the temple’s two armed guards. They patted it down to ensure there was no weapon inside. Although one is not supposed to carry money on Shabbat, I took my wallet, so I could show my vaccine card as well.
The process reminded me uneasily of 2002, when I went to a synagogue on the Ku’Damm in Berlin. There was an ammoed vehicle parked in front. At the door a German policeman with a submachine gun stood. When I entered, a bored, tattooed woman with a punk haircut was operating a smaller version of a TSA airport security conveyer. The device also operated as a kind of “Shabbat violator detector” for people carrying phones, money, or car keys.
I do not remember much of the service as I don’t speak German. I do remember sitting next to a French Jew, who said he was from Strasbourg. After the service we went our separate ways. I looked back and saw a flash of white on his head. Even then, I feared for him. I turned around, ran back, and said in my worst high school French, “Monsieur! Monsieur! Votre kippah!” He turned, nodded, and carefully put his head covering in his jacket pocket.
Twenty years ago, Jews from different continents praying together in the former heart of Nazism was an affirmation. I never thought such fear and darkness would sweep over America.
Fast forward to January 2022. I put my mask on and kept it on for the whole service, even for singing and chanting. There was a good crowd of perhaps one hundred and twenty people to hear and celebrate with the well-prepared bar mitzvah boy. But before COVID we would have been in the larger chapel with five hundred people. I saw just a few people I knew.
But I did get to put on my tallis and pray with a minyan. We read the portion where Moses brings the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. One commandment is “Thou shalt not murder.” It is not “Thou shalt not kill.” For any who might mourn this or future terrorists, the Talmud says “if someone comes planning to kill you, you should hurry to kill him first.”
As the service closed, we said kaddish, the memorial prayer. (Not for the terrorist.) An older man I knew stood up to pray by himself. As is our temple’s custom, I went to say kaddish with him. I spontaneously patted him on the arm, even in this time of no human contact.
You could say the big crowd was making a defiant return to the synagogue. But I felt a sense of loss as well. Jews have lost so many souls. We are a remnant of a people long oppressed and massacred.
Was the terrorist at Beth Israel in Colleyville disappointed to find just four Jews to hold hostage or harm? Perhaps he was glad to find so few adhering to a religion he found so threatening. He reaped the publicity he sought, as his hostages were joined by an Internet minyan, swelled by thousands of voyeurs to Jewish suffering, until Facebook and the FBI cut off the feed.
Ironically, fear of COVID kept dozens of Jews from harm’s way on that Shabbat in Texas. For two years before the latest anti-Semitic assault, fear has kept Jews from synagogue. Fear about being victims of a disease that has killed 900,000 Americans. Fear of catching COVID in a now nearly-empty temple.
After two years of the coronavirus, how many of us still will not eat in restaurants, go to a movie, get on a plane, shop in a store? You can watch synagogue services on the Web in your underwear, no need to leave home.
With the modern version of “synagogue for shut-ins” you can hear prayers between texts and tweets, washed down with coffee and Danish. No one will ask if you have a kippah, offer you a tallit or prayer book, or surprise you with an aliyah to the Torah.
You won’t be a target sitting on your comfortable couch. But Jews have died sanctifying the Holy Name for more than two thousand years. For so many to hide from a virus with a low mortality rate seems an abandonment.
Even the government seems to be trying to drive us from our synagogues. To “protect” us from the coronavirus, California Governor Gavin Newsom closed all houses of worship in 2020. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” California lost 5 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court for this violation of religious freedom.
Still, the fear factor has made worship mostly virtual for non-Orthodox synagogues, like the four-person ‘minyan’ in Colleyville. We have lost so many during COVID, not just our dead, but those who have drifted away. And many suffering from COVID’s economic devastation are unwilling to pay temple dues to watch services on the internet.
You can watch non-Orthodox streams of Judaism stream services on Shabbat. But you can’t shake hands, nod, or sing prayers and blessings with the crowd. You certainly cannot taste the Shabbat kiddush, another casualty of COVID in many synagogues.
The unaffiliated and the unchurched are another potential loss. How will people find us if our doors are closed and locked? For those interested in Judaism or thinking about conversion, this is another stumbling bloc. While ever-growing security is necessary, it becomes just another barrier for the convert to climb over.
Perhaps the latest terrorist will wake Jews up not just to fears for our lives, but to fears for our souls.
On my way out, the guards printed up an ID badge and gave it to me. It showed my “fully vaccinated” status and membership. Better yet, it made me younger, using a fifteen-year-old picture from the database. I do not mind wearing the badge to synagogue identifying me as a Jew, because that is what I am.
I went to synagogue today.