While sitting at Newark Airport on November 18th waiting for a much delayed flight to come home, there were many hours to think, read, drink coffee, nap and chat with my fellow strandees; fifty-eight of us were olim. As we sat or stood in little groups, I cannot imagine that anyone was not thinking of what had occurred in the synagogue in Har Nof earlier that day. In the time zone warp, when we finally left Newark nine hours after we were scheduled to leave (El Al pilot walk out), it was well into the next day in Israel.
Once we arrived and had access again to the news and more details, the tragedy of this massacre was striking. Years ago, a friend’s mother was killed by a gunman who had entered her Catholic church on Long Island and shot her and her priest while she was praying. It was chilling to think that someone at prayer appears to be a vulnerable target for those desiring to commit violence, for whatever reason.
Now weeks later, when I enter my shul, there is a sign on the door that states that the door will be locked for security reasons while the morning minyan is in session. Those of us who grew up in the world of small neighborhood shuls in the United States have memories of the doors being open and the sounds of prayer wafting out onto the street. I once attended a tiny shtiebel in the basement of a building in the Bronx and I would not have found it if the door had not been open and the voices had not been set free to the air.
That sign leaves me feeling sad. I cannot argue that it is unreasonable. What happened in that synagogue in Har Nof is what is unreasonable, not the security measures that need to be taken in it’s wake.
We are living in a Jewish homeland and the dream has always been that it includes the right to pray, celebrate, and live openly in a Jewish way. I struggled with verbally explaining that to friends in the United States who questioned why. For those who do not have the concept of a full Jewish life, even if they are Jews, it seems hard to understand. But it is really a simple concept with many complex options. Being the “other” in so many countries where we have been scattered for two thousand years changed who we were as a people and even how we relate to each other with our different cultures and languages.
But, other than some small differences, our annual prayer cycle and adherence to Torah as our guide makes us one people. That becoming Shabbat observant or maintaining kashrut is so easy in Israel, makes even the most secular of us think about that connection. I am no expert on halacha but I know that the rhythm of the days, weeks, months, and year is guided by Torah and our beliefs and obligations as a people. Whether from our great grandparents or ancestors further back, sometimes centuries back, we all came from those who would live Jewishly in some way, in some cases up until being forced to convert or dying for not converting.
Yes, in many families it has become watered down and assimilation has taken a toll. Mine too, as a teen after my father died. But I cannot imagine any Jew visiting the Kotel and not being moved by the sight of Jews praying openly, passionately, and communally in an open space that encompasses our history. For many Jewish visitors to Jerusalem, they have not had this opportunity to witness this much Judaism close up.
Because of that open air festival of prayer and history, it saddens me that doors will now be closed during morning minyans or any other times when Jews gather to pray. Walking home from Beit Rav Kook one Friday night, the sounds of men’s voices in prayer followed me for two blocks. Yes, men’s voices, but this is not about that. Another time.
For centuries, Jews dreamed of a return to Zion. We are here now, we have a homeland. The day to day difficulties of life in this place, political differences, and the two Jews, three opinions life style here is jarring sometimes. But with that in mind, we know that those challenges are part of any society. For a newbie olah chadasha, all of that is endurable. I am hopeful and I will find my way.
Deep down, I can only believe that there will be a time when all shul doors are wide open, when eleven year old girls aren’t set on fire by terrorists, when rabbis are not slaughtered while at prayer, when our brave police and IDF are not endangered by hatred, and when babies are not considered targets for terror because they are “future soldiers”. We can only pray for that time to come soon and for leaders that will make it happen. The Jewish people have spent many years in many places forced to hide behind closed doors in order to survive. Those days are over, we are here. Now we just need the will to elect those who have a vision that includes Jews at prayer without the fear of an open door.