The events of last Saturday in Colleyville, Texas, have caused us to take a collective sigh of relief and a deep gasp for air — at the same time.
We are relieved that the situation ended with the physically safe release of the four hostages. But it was a stark reminder of the dangers that lurk in our world, and the heightened threats of being Jewish in America.
Three glaring ironies of the events of last week stood out to me:
1. I do not know Rabbi Cytron-Walker — but it is rabbis like him that encouraged me to become a rabbi.
When I was in college, I would frequent different shuls and minyanim whenever I could get the chance. In each prayer space that I entered, I judged the welcoming nature of the leadership more than the food after the service or the décor of the room. Some clergy invited me for Shabbat lunch minutes after meeting me; others could not care less that I was a guest in their community.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker is the former type of rabbi and community leader. Rabbi Cytron-Walker treated his last months at the congregation as if they were his first. He welcomed in the stranger, offered him tea to warm up on a cold day, and demonstrated the hospitality that Abraham and Sarah showed in the time of the Bible. It is this ethic, ironically, that made Rabbi Cytron-Walker and his congregation vulnerable.
Were the rabbi to have leaned toward the side of worry or fear, and peppered this would-be terrorist with questions about his background and presence on this Shabbat, perhaps his alarm would have staved off the traumatic events that followed. But had he done so, the rabbi simultaneously would have failed as a Jewish professional.
Core to our future and fundamental to our collective success is the notion of being welcoming to all. When we build fortresses around our places of prayer, we offer security to those inside and ward off those who seek to do evil, but at the same time, we deny a sense of openness and welcome to individuals who seek refuge, people who have questions and souls who genuinely need a place to warm up on a cold day.
2. Allegedly, the terrorist chose a synagogue because he believed that Jews control the world. He wanted us to wield that imaginary power to release a convicted felon from federal custody. The gunman even contacted a prominent rabbi in New York, asking her to exert her influence to help him achieve his goal.
The fantastic irony is that as soon as this assailant walked into the temple with a gun he transformed the nature the Jewish people there from a perceived identity of power, control, and invincibility to one of victimhood, limitation, and being helpless prey.
These two competing narratives have conflicted with each other on topics related to Israel, politics, and leadership, but I do not recall a time they have been in such close juxtaposition.
3. Much of my day-to-day communal life is focused on petty and niggling infighting with other streams of Jews. Who can pray at the Western Wall? Can I officiate at a wedding with a colleague of a different stripe? Can we use this technology during Shabbat without offending visitors? Is this standard of kashrut acceptable for our congregation and their guests? The infighting and squabbling between the different streams of the Jewish world feel existential. They are not.
A terrorist chose to infiltrate a synagogue last week. He did not choose a library, a hospital, or an Applebee’s restaurant. He targeted a Jewish place of worship.
What was inconsequential to this person was which movement he targeted. Whether Beth Israel was a Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, modern Orthodox, or non-egalitarian place of worship had no consequence in his decision. And once the attack was announced and word spread, it did not matter to any Jew, either.
All places of worship knew, without uttering a syllable, that there but for the grace of God…
All places of worship knew in that moment that whether Women of the Wall could read from a Torah scroll on rosh chodesh, or if we wait for one hour or six hours after eating meat, or walked or drove to synagogue on holidays, or livestreamed a service on Shabbat, did not matter one iota. We were bound by a greater DNA, a bigger tie, and a deeper bond. Ironically, those links are forgotten in times of sunshine, but they are bright, visible, and tangible in times of darkness.
The ordeal of Colleyville has ended. The trauma for the survivors, the community, and the Jewish world is just beginning. I pray for the safety of those in the inner circle and those in the outmost rings. They all are affected by this act of hatred.
May we all work hard to land on the proper side of the ironies that life presents.
David-Seth Kirshner is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, immediate past president of the New York Board of Rabbis, and the president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis.