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Shabbat is the day of rest in the Jewish faith. For the practitioners of a religion that emphasizes human dignity and respect, this means that Friday evenings and Saturdays are meant to be times of peaceful reflection together.
Yet again, a synagogue has had its day of peace shattered by violence. The Jan. 15 standoff at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, is but the latest example. Thankfully, all four hostages in Colleyville escaped the 10-hour ordeal physically unharmed.
After causing some confusion and frustration on Saturday when discussing the hostage taker’s demands, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a statement on Sunday calling the standoff “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.” Some questions remain about the motivations and actions of the British captor, who demanded the release of a Pakistani scientist convicted of trying to kill U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. There can be little doubt, however, that the Jewish community has faced another targeted act of violence, as it has for centuries.
Rabbis are spiritual leaders, counselors and teachers. They shouldn’t also have to be the person who throws a chair at an armed assailant so they and their congregants can escape. But that is the heroic role that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was forced into Saturday.
“So for the past few years, we’ve had training — it’s not training, it’s I guess courses, instruction with the FBI, with the Colleyville Police Department, with the Anti-Defamation League, with Secure Communities Network, “Cytron-Walker told CBS News. “And they really teach you in those moments that, when your life is threatened, you need to do whatever you can to get to safety. You need to do whatever you can to get out.”
Sadly, tellingly, this type of preparation has had to become almost standard procedure for synagogues — even here in Maine. Bangor’s Congregation Beth Israel ramped up its security protocols in 2018 after the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead. That has meant locked doors during services, a security committee and screening people as they enter the synagogue.
For anyone who needs a reminder of the persistent and pernicious threat of antisemitism today, the extent to which our Jewish neighbors must go to safeguard their worship should be eye opening. Days of peace should not be days of high alert.
The Bangor area has experienced its own antisemitic incidents in recent years. In 2020, teenagers spray painted a swastika on the street outside Beth Israel. In 2012, three minors painted both Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Beth Abraham with antisemitic graffiti. Local synagogue leaders reacted with horror to the events in Texas, while expressing gratitude for the support they’ve received in response to those events here at home.
“One of the reasons why I’m not riddled with as much anxiety as I could be is because of the cooperation that we get from local government, and especially the Bangor Police Department,” Brian Kresge, Congregation Beth Israel’s president, said this week.
Rabbi Chaim Wilansky of Congregation Beth Abraham stressed the importance of turning hateful events into good action.
“If we’re in a dark room, and we light a candle, what happens? The whole room lights up,” Wilansky said. “We’re always trying to take this leap forward, to do one positive action, even just one good deed, one word, one good thought, and that can make a difference across the whole world.”
This perspective also reminds us of Bangor’ Tahmoor Khan, the first-generation Pakistani-American whose car was spray painted with racist graffiti in August. He responded by calling on people to be better, while remaining hopeful about the goodness of others. “There are a few bad actors,” Khan said at the time. “But you are also going to find the good in people, people’s beautiful souls.”
Hate takes many different forms and is directed at many different people, but it only wins if we let it.
“I just want to give thanks and appreciation for all of the love and all of the support from the Jewish community, my people; from the Muslim community; from the Christian community; from all faiths, all backgrounds,” Cytron-Walker, the Texas rabbi, told CBS. “Friends, acquaintances, strangers all over the world. It’s truly been overwhelming.”
With his bravery and his words, Cytron-Walker has lit a candle during a dark time. Everyone, no matter our faith or background, has a role to play in helping to strengthen that light.