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In synagogue, listening for gunfire instead of God

Halle, Poway, Pittsburgh: These attacks force us to turn synagogues into fortresses and corrupt our bonds to each other
Police officers in Halle, Germany, October 9, 2019
Police Officers in Halle, Germany, October 9, 2019

If Judaism were a body, the Shema would be its heart. At the beginning and the end of each day, at the beginning and the end of each life: “Hear, O Israel…” To live Jewishly is to be defined by this rhythmic call to attention, to pray with open ears. Attention and presence, Shema and Hineini. They are the spiritual foundation of synagogue, supporting its weight as essentially as rebar, and they greet the Jew each time she arrives there – never more so than during the High Holy Days. This Yom Kippur, Jews across the world stepped into temple just as the news began to pour out of Halle. For the eighty worshipers in that East German town, that foundation was broken. For the rest of us, it was badly battered. Though this week’s true victims are in Halle, it’s worth examining the effect their slaying, and that of so many others gunned down in the act of being Jewish has had on our collective consciousness.

It’s been a distressing year for Jews. Violent anti-Semitism, unseen in scale for generations, has made a comeback. In response, our synagogues have been turned into “hard targets.” Hardness is not a word that comes to mind when imaging a sanctuary. Not just armed security but police patrol the entrances to our spaces. After Pittsburgh, and then Poway, many of us welcomed them – it was the only way we felt we could safely pray in public. We welcome them all the more now, but the mere fact of their being there is a constant reminder of what sent them. They are physical testaments to our insecurity, serving both to protect and derange the prayer experience. It is obviously better to be guarded than vulnerable, but this weaponized antisemitism turns even our efforts at self-protection into a form of terror.

This year, my rabbi delivered one of the most rousing sermons I’ve ever heard, and I heard but a fraction of it. While she spoke, my eyes were trained on stained glass windows; I listened, not to the words filling the room, but to the outside air, waiting for something amiss, waiting for more news from Halle, waiting for a bullet to puncture the translucent Isaiah standing above me. Every few minutes the hired guard minding the shrine’s back entrance appeared in the door’s small window, and every time he did my heart jumped. That violence had shaken something loose.

I don’t mean to sound alarmist. I’m under no illusions about the realities our community does and does not face. I know this isn’t 1930s Berlin. And yet I also know this isn’t 1990s New York. We live in a state of rising tensions without the arrival of full-fledged pogroms. But our very Judaism, the renewal of our covenant through solemn prayer, is being disrupted by hatred. As I’m sure many others could have said of this Yom Kippur, I was not present, I was not listening. Those in Halle certainly weren’t – every measure of attention they could summon was directed towards survival. They were listening for gunfire, not for God. The rest of our shuls were thankfully undisturbed, but an attack on any part of that Jewish body is an attack on its whole: the arm is damaged, and the hand can’t move; an attack on any part of that body is an attack on its heart, and Shema cannot abide rifle blasts.

This is the ultimate perverseness of these shootings. In attacking a central part of the Jewish experience, they attack our identity. They require us to turn synagogues into fortresses. They make presence before Torah life threatening. They corrupt our bonds to each other, making deep empathy for fellow Jews a source of panic – the second part of the Shema unites us in singularity, and so as we become those in Pittsburgh, Poway and Halle, we become victimized.

To change in response to terrorism is to announce defeat, to embolden its perpetrators. But we are changed. Synagogue is changed. And I’m incredibly angry – with the marchers in Charlottesville and the assailants in Paris and the vandals in Lakewood and these three shooters for spreading this poison, and with myself, for being susceptible to it.

About the Author
Sean lives in Toronto with his lifelong partner, neurosis, and his girlfriend. He is an active member of the Jewish community.
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