So, it’s Friday again. I still have flour on my shirt and some dough under my fingernails. This week, my challah dough came out just right. Springy. Moist but not too moist and pliable enough to shape and stretch without the ropes falling apart. As commanded, I remove an olive-sized piece of dough and say a prayer for separating challah. I say a prayer, a prayer for all of us. Making the challah crystalized my racing thoughts from the week, thoughts that have raced since, last week, on a Shabbat afternoon that coincided with the lead-in to Tu B’shevat and Dr. Martin Luther King Day, when I woke from a Shabbat afternoon nap to a post on my newsfeed that there was a possible hostage situation at a synagogue in Texas.
As a reporter who has covered and localized numerous acts of hate and antisemitism for the Detroit Jewish Community, including the horrors of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, upon hearing the news I wondered, how could a possible hostage situation in a Texas synagogue have any link to Michigan? Turns out, there was a big link, as Rabbi Cytron-Walker is a Lansing native and a University of Michigan graduate. So, even though it was Shabbat, just as on the afternoon of Oct. 27, 2018, I got to work.
As I tuned into CNN for details, I was struck by one conversation a weekend correspondent was having with a woman representing the Jewish American Community. Perhaps she was from UJA, I cannot remember. But I remember the question the commentator asked her. “Can you tell us what would be going on in a synagogue on a Saturday morning? Who would be there.” Are we as Jews really such an exotic rare species, still, in America, a place where Jews established our first synagogue in 1658? Would the anchor ask the same if, Gd forbid, a terrorist held people hostage at a Sunday morning Mass? So I thought about all that does go on in a synagogue, or a temple, or shul, from my earliest memories to just that morning.
At synagogue just that morning my congregation was celebrating its first in-person Bar mitzvah in two years. I felt my eyes welling up at the sight of pre-teens sitting together, all masked, some, who may have not been Jewish, figuring out when to sit and when to stand, not knowing that no, they did not have to awkwardly balance both books – the Siddur and Chumash – in their hands the entire service. It had been over two years since I have seen that many pre-teens in shul. At synagogue that morning there were older members, some who could walk just fine but others who needed a cane or a walker. At synagogue the family of the Bar Mitzvah sat in the front row, the mom getting up every now again to talk to the gabbai to point out who was reading what part of the Torah or reciting verses from the Siddur.
At synagogue, I sat next to a friend, a pediatric nurse, and we talked about the spike of COVID cases as we learned who in our household had gotten it and how our kids were managing in college. We spoke, best as we could, through our masks. We had not seen each other since November and it has been tough to go through such a winter without seeing the faces, or even half the face, of good friends. She looked at me and said, thank goodness we can still see into each other’s eyes. In synagogue that Shabbat, we rose during the Torah service as the mom of the Bat Mitzvah chanted Shirat Ha Yam, the Song of the Sea, heralding the parting of the Red Sea and the Israelites crossing into Freedom. Can you think of a better Torah portion to read on MLK weekend? All the while, we were guarded. By one concealed carry security guard at the door. And another concealed carry security guard who kept watch in the parking lot.
The week before, my husband and I found ourselves in another synagogue in Cincinnati. We were visiting our son. My husband is saying Kaddish for his father and he has not missed a single day. So this leads us into sanctuaries wherever we might be. So, what happened in that synagogue on that Shabbat? A place we had never been to where we were complete strangers? As we entered the building, we were greeted by a woman usher as we introduced ourselves and directed us to where we could hang our coats and where to enter the sanctuary. Behind her, in the lobby, was a uniformed security guard, who tipped his hat to us. His weapon was in clear view in his holster. In that synagogue, I saw not one but two infants being carried in by their very young parents. My eyes welled up again because, since the pandemic, I have not seen a baby in shul. In that synagogue on Shabbat morning, one rabbi motioned to us in a welcome sign from the bimah as he put his hands together and gave us almost a little bow. Another rabbi came off the bima, introduced us as we found a seat in the square-shaped light-drenched sanctuary.
In synagogue that morning during the Torah service, one of the rabbis spoke of the great honor it is to come up to the Torah to have an aliyah, including, that morning, a ladybug, that had somehow come in from the Ohio January cold to land and make itself comfortable right on the parchment of the open scroll. Though we didn’t know anyone in that synagogue that morning, my husband and I were also called to the Torah for an aliyah. Reading from Torah for that aliyah was a young girl who was preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah this November. She had the sweetest voice. As I looked over her shoulder, she read flawlessly. After services, we chatted with the congregants, who offered my young adult son a Jewish home away from home in Cincinnati, for holidays, Shabbat, or even their newly forming young professionals group, any time he wanted. Because, another thing that goes on in synagogue is the mitzvah of hospitality, and welcoming in the stranger.
As we left the synagogue these past two Shabbat mornings, as we always have since 2018, we thanked the security guards. So, tomorrow morning, I’ll go to shul again. I’ll bring my talit. And my mask and my hand sanitizer. And I’ll bring my courage too. I’ll remind myself of that courage every time someone walks into that sanctuary. Who is coming in now? Are they the same people? The same faces, half shrouded in masks? What if someone new wants to join us? And if we welcome them in, just as rabbi Cytron-Walker welcomed in that stranger, well, what then? What’s not supposed to happen in synagogue is the need to always be looking over your shoulder. Looking for the exit. Because, what’s not supposed to happen, what’s not supposed to be welcomed in a synagogue is fear.