What happened in Chicago

Police and Rabbi David Wolkenfeld investigating suspected arson outside Anshei Sholom B'nei Israel synagogue in Chicago on May 19, 2019. (screen capture: Fox32 Chicago, via The Times of Israel)
Police and Rabbi David Wolkenfeld investigating suspected arson outside Anshei Sholom B'nei Israel synagogue in Chicago on May 19, 2019. (screen capture: Fox32 Chicago, via The Times of Israel)

If you’re going to be attacked by a terrorist, the best way to go is to have that terrorist be stupid and incompetent.

That’s what seems to have happened in Chicago, where a would-be arsonist’s failed attempts at making Molotov cocktails left them to sputter futilely in the parking lot of Anshei Sholom B’nei Israel.

You know how just about all synagogues call themselves warm and welcoming? Anshei Sholom, by all accounts, actually is warm and welcoming (and therefore has no need to hurl around those words, as if they were, I don’t know, Molotov cocktails). It’s a Modern Orthodox shul that’s unusual in its openness, while never leaving the constraints of halacha. It’s attracted a wide range of people, some newcomers to Jewish life, some who never felt at home in shul until they found home there. It’s flourishing; in fact, it’s often a destination for Jewish youth groups and interfaith and Jewish studies major from colleges, ranging from nearby Northwestern and University of Chicago to schools across the country.

It’s in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, a place constantly compared to the Brooklyn of a decade or two ago, when it was more accessible, less chichi, and really, seriously diverse.

It’s also right across the street from the JCC Chicago, with its nursery school and kids’ programs.

Late last Saturday night, an incompetent fire-bomber walked within security camera range and left his three little presents. They burned out, and puzzled congregants discovered them the next morning. Someone called the police.

That same day, the police said that they were investigated smashed car windows near synagogues in the city’s West Rogers Park neighborhood. (On the other hand, that’s such an entirely Jewish place that it would be hard not to be near a synagogue there.)

So what does all of this mean?

“We’re holding up okay,” Anshei Sholom’s rabbi, David Wolkenfeld, said on Tuesday morning. (He’s got connections to the New Jersey area — really, who doesn’t? His wife, Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld, grew up in Teaneck.) “It’s been a very busy 36 hours since it happened. The police, the FBI, and local news stations are taking it very seriously.

“But at the end of the day, there was no damage, and everyone was unhurt. People are nervous, but they are okay. They have a lot of resolve and fortitude.

“We are not naïve. We know about the existence of people who do this sort of thing. So it’s really shocking when it happens to you, but it’s not out of the blue.”

So it’s that tension — you know it happens to other people, but you believe that it doesn’t happen to you. Logic tells you that can’t possibly be true for everyone, but if we lived in a logical world, we would live in an unrecognizable one.

It’s also the tension between wanting security and wanting freedom.

Anshei Sholom has taken security very seriously, Rabbi Wolkenfeld told me. “We’ve been security conscious for years,” he said. “We are constantly tweaking the system, trying to make constant improvements. A few years ago, we put in a more advanced camera surveillance system.” So, before Pittsburgh, right? “Yes, way before Pittsburgh.”

Neither Rabbi Wolkenfeld nor his congregants are Pollyannas.

But on the other hand, “We don’t want to end our real commitment to keeping the shul open. We have all sorts of people who come here for the first time, either out of curiosity or as guests at a bar mitzvah or with their schools. We get confirmation students from the Reform synagogue in the area. We get many people who are unfamiliar with orthodox tefillah, or with shuls in general. We are proud of that, and we have no intention to change it.

“But still we have to be aware.”

As we head toward Memorial Day, there is a certain irony to this.

Memorial Day, which honors the memory of the people who died in the service of this country, to make and keep us free, wasn’t made official until the middle of the 20th century. But it started, as Decoration Day, right after the Civil War, that calamitous conflict that brought into petrifyingly sharp relief the divisions that have plagued us from before that war and have become more virulent since then, if that is even possible.

So far, most of us have been kept safe by the ineptitude of the haters around us (and to be sure, by the good will and loving kindness of most of us, because after all there are very few people who fit into absolutely no undesirable groups. How many straight white thin handsome young WASP men are there?). We certainly should pray for our enemies’ continued incompetence, but we should pray as well, this Memorial Day, for the courage and tenacity and strength and wisdom we will need to make this country — and this world — the place that Abraham Lincoln, just years before the first Decoration Day, which he did not live to see, told us it should be.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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