PITTSBURGH — Tree of Life. Chabad of Poway. And now: Congregation Beth Israel.
Here we go again.
Once more, an attack on Jews at prayer. Once more, the serenity of the sanctuary is shattered. Once more, shudders of fear across the country. Once more, a sense of helplessness, of bewilderment, of horror.
Once more the question, as old as antiquity and yet as fresh as the newspaper at our doors, the cable broadcast on our televisions, the social media messages on our devices: Why? Why now? Why us?
That triad of questions is for theologians, for scholars, for God. Three times since October 2018 – and many more throughout the centuries – those questions have been on our lips and in the meditation of our hearts. Hell – is it
OK to use that word in a Jewish newspaper? – I’ve written this column, or ones just like it, so many times that this one nearly writes itself.
Watch me do it again, a ritual now performed for Colleyville, Texas, as it was in October 2018 for Pittsburgh and then, in April 2019, for Poway, Calif.: Retreat from the television and open my computer. Check the web for the latest developments and the correct spelling of words that aren’t usually in the vocabulary of a political columnist. Determine whether “shul,” being a foreign word (Yiddish), takes an upper-case “S” (probably not, because it has been meshed into common English usage). Search for the latest Anti-Defamation League statistics on antisemitic incidents (2,024 reports of assault, harassment, and vandalism in 2020). Then, as a matter of course, call Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life, three blocks from where I sit and type, for a quote (this time he was just coming back from a prayer vigil marking Havdalah, with an upper-case H).
These episodes are all the same, even though they are all different.
This one puts at the center of the event an unforgettable young man named Charlie Cytron-Walker who – one of the Reform Jewish Youth Movement members he recruited into the chapter in Lansing, Mich., told me as the 11-hour hostage situation was playing out – was almost a pied piper of the city’s teeny youth group long before he went to rabbinical school. This one involves a gifted, sensitive rabbinical student whose instructor in his senior seminar on practical rabbinics told me of the young seminarian’s lifelong commitment to diversity and outreach inspired his fellow students at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. This one captured – this time the word is employed quite literally – while serving as a rabbi in a Texas suburb who one of his friends, Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, described as “an absolute mensch of a guy.”
It was remarkable that so many people who know Rabbi Cytron-Walker intuitively reached for that word that night.
A mensch of a guy in a mess of danger. A mensch of a guy who opened the door to Malik Faisal Akram because he thought the man who later would hold him hostage was seeking shelter.
A man with a sense of joy (more than 24 hours in a dance marathon) and a sense of justice (working as assistant director of the Amherst Survival Center, which housed a food pantry, free store, and soup kitchen in Western Massachusetts), caught in a joyless crisis that defied all decent definitions of justice.
Now, days later, we know far more about what unfolded only miles from where the Islamist extremist Aafia Siddiqui, whose release the hostage-taker sought, was held in Fort Worth’s Federal Medical Center prison for women with physical and mental-health issues after being sentenced to an 86-year term for attempting to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008.
But last Saturday morning, afternoon, and evening – for the 11-hour hostage ordeal, and beyond – we knew little.
But we – all of us – knew enough that Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Montreal’s Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom understood that her January semi-sabbatical had been shattered. Tafasta meruba lo tafasta, she had written her congregants (“If you try to grasp hold of too much, you hold onto nothing at all”), but she came to the phone on an evening when 1,000 rabbis were conducting an online vigil to tell me, “This is a violation on so many levels, at a time when all we want as humans is to be connected and safe.”
That was the irony – the almost-tragic irony – at the heart of this incident.
Like so many congregations, Congregation Beth Israel makes Shabbat services available online. Rabbi Charlie, as he is known in his community, was in the sanctuary with three others, but the congregants-turned-witnesses were at home, on sofas, in easy chairs. The beginning of the episode played out online because the congregation was offering safety to its members, even as its leader unwittingly was putting himself (and three others) in danger.
The details of what happened inside the synagogue dribbled out in the days that followed. What happened outside the synagogue was played out in public, and if there is solace, if there is consolation, then it was there for all to see.
The leader of the Muslim community expressed support for the hostages. Community leaders did, too. Michael Miller, the local chief of police, said he “activated” his Christian prayer circle. This was a Jewish congregation, to be sure, but it was a national tragedy.
“The emotional and safety challenges impact every clergyperson, every house of worship, and every faith community around our country,” said Rabbi Kenneth Kanter, who, as director of the rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, was one of Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s teachers.
Suddenly, in a nation riven by division, there was for one brief shining moment, a sense of shared sentiment, of unity. Rabbi Cytron-Walker issued a statement Sunday expressing his relief at being alive. “I am thankful and filled with appreciation for all of the vigils and prayers and love and support.”
But the wounds of these kinds of episodes do not heal quickly, or ever.
“While everyone is physically safe, they are also forever changed,” Rabbi Myers of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life said in a statement provided to the Jewish Journal a day later. “My own community knows too well the pain, trauma, and lost sense of security that comes when violence forces its way in, especially into our sacred spaces.”
The FBI later identified the hostage-taker as British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, 44, who arrived at JFK airport in New York about two two weeks before and took his mission to Texas.
During the crisis, the man who caused it had one revelation. “I’m going to die. Don’t cry about me,” the man could be heard saying on the phone before the stream on Congregation Beth Israel’s Facebook page ended.
Outside the 16-year-old building with a 160-seat sanctuary and a creed of L’Dor V’Dor (from generation to generation), Americans of many faiths were crying – crying in fright, crying for understanding, crying out in disbelief about an ordeal unfolding in a house of belief, an episode that lost its power to stir disbelief. For whatever else is said about it, the hostage crisis in Texas was all too believable.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.