I went to synagogue and a hockey game broke out

As a mourner, attending synagogue with a minyan has been a priority. This Shabbat afternoon, when attending services for the close of the Sabbath, a fight broke out. Not a shouting match or a disagreement over who had better cholent for lunch. We are talking a literal fist of cuffs and throwing hands. Pushing and shoving galore. A full-fledged hockey match. Whatever you prefer to call it, it was ugly.

The circumstances of the altercation do not matter so much. What left me stunned was that after the 30-something-year-old man, wearing a silk suit and jet black hair with a velvet yarmulke that sat on top of his shiny, slicked back mane, pushed the silver haired 70-something-year-old gabbai to the ground without any remorse, the aggressor (the 30-something-year-old) refused to leave the shule because he insisted on hearing the Torah reading and then reciting the Kedusha prayer, with a minyan.

Yup. You read that right.

It immediately jogged my memory to a time when my son was about 5 years young, (11 years ago). He was this adorable, cherubic looking boy who wore a perpetual smile. He would come to Israel with his parents and soak up the candy we would spoil him with along with the sacred family time we would share. My boy would have a kippah srugah dangling from his precious locks of hair, shorts that would bunch up and almost fall down to his ankles and sandals that by the end of our month-long visit in Israel would be covered in dust and soot.

One night, we as a family decided to head to the Kotel because we were leaving the following morning back for America. In those days, we were still nostalgic, and the Kotel was a first and last stop for us.

We had just gone through security and were holding hands passing through the narrow walkway that leads out to the Kotel plaza, when a man wearing a long satin black coat, an expensive fur shtreimel and pants tucked into his white sox, like he was playing first base for the Detroit Tigers, rushed through the rampart and literally trampled my 5-year-old son and sent him flying to the ground.

He did not so much as look back, apologize, help him up, or even mumble something apologetic in Yiddish. He just kept running toward the Kotel. I assume he was running to catch a minyan or a class, because what else could he have been doing there?!

Obviously, seeing my little boy trampled, hurting physically and stunned emotionally, triggered a reaction in me. I ran up to this fella in a wicked rush and said in Hebrew with my heavy American accent – “Hey – you just knocked my son down.” I got no response. I said it again but louder while grabbing the lapel of his coat. He then replied, “Oops” and kept moving fast toward the Kotel.

I then screamed some things at him in English — because it comes out so much easier that way — that I cannot type on these pages, that were cathartic to get out but surely fell on deaf ears. He called me some Yiddish slurs and went off to pray, embraced by his comrades and homies.

That story stuck with me for years.

A man in such a passionate hurry to pray with reverence and fervor to God in what has been deemed the holiest place for Jews to gather for such prayers, justifies trampling a boy and refusing to apologize for his actions to achieve that goal faster. That is wrong on every level.

Skip forward 11 years, at a random synagogue in Jerusalem on a Shabbat afternoon, and a man knocks down a silver-haired elder with no remorse or apology and refuses to leave (when he was clearly in the wrong), so he can hear the Torah reading and recite the Kedusha.

At the Kotel and at this synagogue, I came to pray and have a moment of connection and in both instances, a hockey game broke out.

How ironic that both of these moments happened days before we commemorated the reflective and mournful time of the nine days at the onset of the Hebrew month of Av. This time leads to the historical memory of the destruction of the Temple of old. Tradition explains clearly that our demise was because of our lack of civility to one another. And thousands of years later, here we are behaving the same way.

I came out of Shabbat shaken by the brouhaha in shule. I then opened the news to learn that Prime Minister Netanyahu had taken ill and was hospitalized. I learned this because his political rival, Yair Lapid wished him a speedy recovery on social media which appeared on my feed. For some reason I was buoyed by Lapid’s tweet.

What a crazy juxtaposition. Then I realized, that is the world I aspire towards.

A world where we can wish our fiercest political rivals health and blessings in a moment of illness. A world where Jews can wish Muslims blessings on Ramadan. A world where faceless, nameless neighbors can help up those who are knocked down, regardless of the circumstances that lead to their fall. I pray for a world where places are holy but never as holy as the human being. I pray for a people that are never stronger than the human spirit. A hope for a world world that when we run for prayer, we never do so at the peril of another human. That instead, we grab their hand and bring them closer because after all, that is the most sacred form of prayer we can offer.

May this time at the beginning of the month of Av, a moment of remembrance, mourning and reflection, remind us of the small and sacred acts we are capable of achieving to bring greater peace, harmony and love to our broken world.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC.
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