Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Letter from Copenhagen

Lauren Pollack is a student at George Washington University who is spending a semester in Copenhagen.  She is also a congregant of mine. When I heard about last week’s shootings I was anxious to contact her to see how she is doing.  I also suggested she might want to send the congregation an update as to what she witnessed.  Here is her first hand account:  

The Copenhagen Shooting-A Reflection

I had just gotten home from a short study tour in western Denmark when I heard the news of the first shooting. It’s sad to say but as soon I heard that the shooter had fled the scene and the police had begun a manhunt in and around my neighborhood my thoughts instantly jumped to the Copenhagen Synagogue, situated in the heart of Copenhagen, which also happens to be less than a 2-minute walk from my apartment.

I fell asleep before the shooting at the synagogue happened, but at around 2 AM one of the SRA’s in my building (Social Residence Advisor-similar to an RA in a college dorm except they’re more like mentor and friend) came running downstairs to check if we were all home and safe. I saw how nervous and shaken he was, my housemates started chattering about a shooting that had just happened at the Synagogue. I grabbed my phone and I checked the news.  I saw what I had so unfortunately expected; someone who had been guarding the Synagogue during a Bat Mitzvah had been shot and killed.

The day after the attack I kept finding myself leaving my apartment to walk over to the Synagogue; I went three times in one day. With each hour the piles of flowers, candles, and notes grew larger and larger. The sidewalk is still covered in flowers and candles, and more fresh bouquets are laid down each day. Each time I visit I weave in and out of the people in the crowd and the police who have been stationed there to protect the visitors and the city as a whole.

The outpouring of love and support from the community here in central Copenhagen has been truly profound. Jews and non-Jews alike have been paying their respects at the site of the second attack, but it has also been very eerie and confusing time for many, including myself. A friend of mine has been attending Shabbat services at the Chabad house here in Copenhagen and this upcoming weekend she invited me for Shabbat. But the questions I keep asking myself are, “Do we go now?” “Is it even more important that we go this Shabbat, or would we be making a mistake or taking too big of a risk?”  I keep finding myself considering sacrificing my freedoms of expression, religion, and speech so that I can ensure my safety and avoid calling attention to myself as an American, and as a Jew. Where is that line between being cautious and sacrificing my beliefs in the wake of such a devastating attack?

I think that I have also experienced the attacks differently because I am Jewish. I have noticed that even though just a few days have past since the attacks, everyone is still somewhat in shock, scared, and upset. I think those same feelings will linger with me a bit longer than many of the students here. Many of my American friends did not contextualize this event and consider it as something that fits into a larger more systemic issue currently facing Jews in Europe and around the world. It’s unsettling to me that one of my most immediate thoughts after the first shooting was that Synagogues need protection, that Jews in Denmark, myself included, were very vulnerable.

My reaction to the attacks remains in stark contrast to the reactions of most Danes. Denmark’s society is a very trusting one. For instance, during the winter months, the sun is very rarely seen-the skies are consistently gray. So when the sun is shining bright, daycares here will bundle up the babies in their care and place them in their carriages out in the sun, usually on the sidewalk-for the most part unattended. That’s just how this society works, and before the attacks I thought it was so beautiful and interesting-if someone left a bike unlocked in front of a store in Washington D.C. within hours it would be gone for good. Reflecting upon this aspect of society following the attacks, it’s hard for me to say whether or not I’m comfortable submitting to this Danish way of life. Trust is such a fundamental aspect of society here and is engrained in much of their routine, it would be hard for me to adjust back to my new “Danish life” if you will-if I abandoned all trust because of one tragic event; I do have a lot of faith and trust in this country and the people that I have met here so far.

I trust that the Danish police, whose presence was very scarce in Copenhagen before the attacks (part of the trusting nature of the Danes), are working hard to protect this city and me. I trust that my abroad program is working hard to make this situation as manageable as possible and provide resources should any student feel overwhelmed and distracted. I trust that the uneasiness I feel walking around will slowly dissipate, as I know I cannot feel this way forever.

Life moves on. That isn’t to say that there is nothing the world can learn from what happened; we have seen attacks like this one before, in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket for instance, where many more people lost their lives because they were targeted for exercising their right to free speech and for being Jewish (and in the wrong place at the wrong time). I think personally however, it’s important for me to focus on not letting this event dictate how I feel about Denmark, how I feel about being a Jew (especially during such tumultuous times for Jews in Europe and around the world), or influence my time in Copenhagen and my travels.

The Danes have welcomed me so warmly during my first month here and I’m looking forward to the next 3 months I have in Scandinavia and Europe (and for the sun to be a more frequent visitor). Copenhagen is such a beautiful city. Hatred does not belong here; it doesn’t belong anywhere.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307