This past Shabbat, we read the story of Vayigash – And He Drew Near, the penultimate portion of the book of Genesis.
It recounts the tale of the brothers reconciliation with Joseph, the sibling they sold into slavery, who rose to become viceroy of Egypt. He’d been separated from them for so long that they no longer recognized him.
I read the story of Vayigash in Monsey at the shabbat morning services of Congregation Netzach Yisroel, where just seven days earlier, in the adjacent home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, the spiritual leader of that synagogue, a Chanukah celebration had been turned into a scene of hatred and Jewish blood spilling by Grafton Thomas, a machete wielding Jew-hater, who slashed and stabbed at all innocents within his reach, simply because of their Judaism.
I wanted to pray among the Jews of that synagogue, to shake hands with the Jews of that community and to express to them that their suffering is my suffering. I wanted them to know that if they are a target, then I am a target and that an attack upon their Jewish community is an attack upon the Jewish community entire. I wanted to demonstrate solidarity simply by being among them.
But as I walked along the main street toward the building, passing by several groups of hasidim as I did so, I felt burdened by an internal struggle to recognize my Jewish identity within the Jews that I encountered. We did not look the same, dress the same or sound the same. I wondered whether solidarity was really something I could convey given such an obvious outer divide.
I opened the door to the entrance foyer of the building, expecting to be asked if I was Jewish, or why I was there, but I faced no such questions.
The only assurance they sought from me was that I was not a reporter.
I was sympathetic to their question. Theirs is a community that has felt uneasy beneath the week-long media glare thrust upon it since the attack; a glare that they did not court, borne of a notoriety that is tragic.
The questions about my association with the press were repeated time and again by several of the hasidim to the point where I began to wonder how welcome my presence actually was.
To each of them I responded with the same answer; that I was there as one Jew who had come to their community with the sole intention of showing solidarity with them in light of the attack they had suffered.
My assurances ultimately granted me access to the main shul. I was immediately noticed as someone from outside the community. A congregant showed me to my seat and brought me a siddur and a chumash so that I could begin to undertake the task I had set out to do – to pray among the Jews of that synagogue.
Barely a handful of people came to welcome me, and to that handful I gratefully extended my own hand in order to shake theirs. They responded in kind. I wished them a Shabbat Shalom. They wished me a Gut Shabbes. The atmosphere seemed to be thawing, at least for the moment.
I spotted Rabbi Rottenberg at the front of the synagogue, dressed in a multi colored bekesha. His tallit was drawn over his head, his fists grasped hold of it on either side of his torso at lapel height. He daverned loudly as he led the congregants in prayer, swaying and shockeling rhythmically; back and forth, back and forth. He energetically paced from the ark to the bima and back again; up and down, up and down.
He had noticed my presence there but it went without acknowledgement.
I asked if I could speak to him but I was instructed not to approach him during the services. The atmosphere felt frigid again. It’s possible my request was refused out of deference to his daverning, but it’s more likely that his congregants were concerned about his safety given recent events.
I asked if he would be giving a sermon and was told that whether he does or not is irrelevant. His sermons are in yiddish – only in yiddish. I would not understand his message, therefore. I asked if someone would be willing to translate for me but received little more than a shrug of the shoulders.
So I decided to sit, to be silent and to do that which I had gone there to do.
My hopes for a warm welcome began to fade somewhat. While a few had taken the time to say hello, most had not done so. I couldn’t blame them.
But then the Rabbi began to read from the Torah and in between the chapters, I was approached by the usher of the synagogue, a most engaging fellow, who asked me for my Hebrew name and for the Hebrew name of the friend who accompanied me that morning, he having also decided to show his solidarity.
The Rabbi, with whom I was still yet to speak, recited a Mi SheBerach – a blessing for us – over the Torah; a signal from him that we were welcome and wanted within his synagogue. That message, though declared publicly, was conveyed privately. The majority of the congregants will have made no connection at all between the Hebrew names read at the bima and the two strangers in the synagogue.
The Torah was returned to the ark and the Rabbi began his sermon. As billed, he did so in Yiddish. I’d hoped to be able to gauge something of his message by way of his body language. If he sought to strengthen his community, I imagined I would perceive as much. If he sought to temper their outrage, I imagined I would perceive as much; perhaps by his expressions or tone or by the reactions of his congregants.
But I could not discern a word of what he was saying and in the absence of a ready translator, I feared my time there might be less informative than I’d hoped. But then, some seven minutes into his sermon, he suddenly broke from Yiddish and began to speak in English saying;
“In acknowledgment and appreciation of our guests, I’d like to say a few words in English. You, our guests, are welcome in our community. Our community has been through a tremendous ordeal. It has been difficult. But we trust in G-d and his plan for us and in the contract we have with him. In our contract with the Almighty, we do not know or pretend to know his terms or when and why he chooses to fulfill them, but we trust that he will do so and that he will do so for our benefit and for the benefit of all his people. I thank you for being with us. We thank you for joining us this shabbat. You are welcome here.”
He reverted to yiddish a moment or two thereafter and once his address was over, his welcome of us now publicly declared and unambiguous, other congregants came forward to welcome us, to shake our hands and to engage with us.
They asked us where we were from, what line of work we were in.
For my part, I told them that I am from Israel and they told me when last they had traveled there. They talked to me about the relatives they have there and the thoughts they had about Israel’s election woes. People approached me and spoke to me in Ivrit and in English, a kind accommodation to me given that they would typically converse in Yiddish while in Shul.
One congregant sold furniture, another was an attorney, another was a traveling salesman. They were warm and engaging and inviting.
Our differences melted away as the commonalities between us proved far more compelling than the distinctions.
Suddenly we were all just Jews, in shul, doing what Jews do in shul – and what Rabbis hate Jews doing in shul. We were talking, discussing, conversing (in between daverning).
It was during those conversations that I learned from several of the members why I was unable to discern the message the Rabbi conveyed during his opening words in Yiddish.
It was because, contrary to my expectations, he was neither seeking to embolden nor to temper his congregation.
He was explaining to them why he was about to do something he had never done before that shabbat; speak English during the course of his sermon, from the ark, in front of the torah. He was explaining why he was willing to do so to the surprise of the vast majority of his membership, in order to accommodate his two guests.
And because he did so, I learned more about that congregation and their feelings in the aftermath of the attack than I could have garnered from news articles or by listening to reports, just by taking the decision to be among them.
Today, the day after my visit to Monsey, the Rabbi and his congregants are no longer abstract to me. Today I know their names and their faces and I thank them for the way that they welcomed me into their midst.
I feel proud to have been able to pray among the Jews of that synagogue.
The book of Genesis begins with a terrible tale of sibling rivalry, of Cain killing his brother Abel. But Genesis ends with an emphasis on the importance of siblings standing united, as Judah did in defense of Benjamin. It speaks of siblings being reconciled, as Joseph was unto his brothers.
The book of contemporary American Jewry has an end that is yet to be written. But the pages of this moment are filled with tales of Jews who are embattled, Jews who are being assailed, slashed, stabbed, shot and killed for being Jewish.
The story is punctuated by Jews who allow fissures to emerge among their own number, Jews who talk past one another, Jews who fail to see one another, Jews who no longer recognize their own brother – or sister.
We banish one another not because of the presence of political difference but because of the absence of respectful political discourse; not on the basis of dignified religious difference, but on the absence of dignified religious debate.
We must guard ourselves against such divides for as we will read this coming shabbat, the house of Jacob will never know peace if its children turn their faces against one another.
I am a proud Jew. My shabbat in Monsey required that I journey to a place and a philosophy that is unfamiliar to me. I went there with the belief that I would be the party reaching out to that community, extending my hand to theirs. I was mistaken.
It was Rabbi Rottenberg who reached out to me. He literally blessed my presence there. He broke with his own traditions in order to engage with me.
He looked beyond our outer differences and saw only a Jew. And while there is a certain distance between the factions of Judaism with which he and I identify, this is a moment in the story of our people where we must bridge such divides; just as the Rabbi did this past shabbat.
I travelled to the Rabbi’s shul; Vayigash – And he drew near!
If we are to prevail in the battle for the Jewish future, his is an example we would do well to emulate.
With Special Thanks To Mr. Peter Fishkind