Usually, when a rabbi, a priest, and an imam walk into any room hilarity is sure to ensue. But, as the rabbi of the impending joke, I was in no mood to laugh. I was playing host at an Orthodox synagogue in Krakow, and with Friday night services about to begin, I was feeling rather nervous.
The cast of characters included a recently ordained Kenyan priest, three divinity students from Princeton, Duke, and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, a Danish professor, and a Muslim Divinity student from Harvard (who, it should be noted, was wearing a Hijab). And then there was me: a rabbinic student at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a graduate student at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and the only Jew in the group.
We were traveling through Europe together as part of the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), an intensive two-week summer program in New York, Germany, and Poland focused on exploring the roles played by clergy under Nazi rule during the Holocaust. The trip was emotionally draining, and I had been looking forward to recharging my batteries in Krakow over Shabbat. However, I didn’t expect my fellow travelers to voluntarily and excitedly follow me to services.
Even without our contribution to the diversity of the quorum, the Kupa Synagogue could have been fittingly called eclectic. The handful of regulars and the rabbi were Hassidic imports, there was a group of Italian high school students on a class trip, and a handful of Americans who came to celebrate a double bar mitzvah. Together, we were Orthodox, Conservative, Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Anglican, Mennonite, and Sunni. We were also a veritable United Nations, with representatives from the United States, Israel, Italy, Denmark, Poland, and Kenya.
The two bar mitzvah boys led the service, simultaneously chanting in Hebrew they had picked up at Sunday school. It was definitely an experience for all in attendance. But for me, the moment was loaded with an added layer of meaning.
My maternal grandparents had each spent time in the Krakow Ghetto during the Holocaust, so praying in that synagogue moved me deeply, watching the bar mitzvah boys exchange smiles as they led the service felt redemptive in some way, and sitting with the (male component of the) ‘G-d Squad’ was plainly surreal.
The world as reflected within the walls of the Kupa Synagogue that Friday night seemed dignified, civil, and sane. Standing in the still fresh ashes of the Holocaust, it felt like our world was growing in wholeness and goodness. And yet, outside the walls of the sanctuary, the world was beginning to unravel.
At that point, Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel had been missing for over a week, the horrifying discovery of their lifeless bodies and the full scale launch of Operation Protective Edge was still several days away. Weeks after I departed Europe, the words “Jews to the gas chambers” would ring out in Paris, petrol bombs would ignite a synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, and graffiti messages across Rome would declare “Jews, the end is near.”
And yet, I cling to the hope that what happened that Friday night in Krakow was not an aberration, and that most of the world would sit in quiet admiration, appreciating the dramatic significance of that bar mitzvah.
I cling to the hope that the horrific news reported daily represents only a dangerous and vocal fringe of humanity, and that the rest of us can live our lives in peaceful obscurity. Additionally, I hope that sharing this moment will promote and shine a light upon the decent people that I pray make up our world’s sane and silent majority.