Some of us are likely struggling to recover from the hostage-taking event at Congregation Beth Israel in Texas, along with pandemic stress. Perhaps most stressful is that we know a synagogue invasion could happen anywhere, during any service. Most of us figure out where the exits are when we go to synagogue, a Jewish community centre or other Jewish institution. We know the history. We need to be on guard when we gather.
On Jan. 15, we streamed our local congregation’s services to our Winnipeg living room and watched a kid my children knew from elementary school lead services. He was becoming a bar mitzvah. Jewish life continues despite the pandemic.
Antisemitism and traumatic events continue, too. When I realized what was happening in Texas, thanks to Jewish social media, it was hard to look away, even though it was Shabbat. Initially, non-Jewish news reports said there was an “apparent hostage-taking event.” This language was used despite the event being livestreamed. Why wasn’t it “real” from the beginning? Even after the hostages were freed, alive, thank G-d, the FBI didn’t immediately use the word antisemitism or hate.
There was no immediate answer from the FBI on why this person chose a synagogue during Shabbat services. There was a rush in some quarters to discuss why Islamophobia is wrong. Even as the hostage-taker identified his cause as aligned with that of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a convicted felon who was outspoken in her antisemitism at her trial, others (including the synagogue president and the FBI) suggested this was a random event. Some articles said the hostages were “detained” – somehow implying they were at fault by being at synagogue on a Saturday morning.
When Jewish leaders, as well as President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about this as an antisemitic act of terrorism, it wasn’t a narrative immediately embraced elsewhere. I found this unsettling. The feeling – of pointing out an issue but not being believed or heard – felt all too familiar. Language and how we tell our stories can twist our understanding of events, and this experience already seemed to be depicted in a way that didn’t ring true.
Certainly, the hostages will be debriefed, the hostage-taker’s family and history will be examined. We’ll learn more about what his motivations might have been. However, my instincts follow that of many Jewish people, as Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Union for Reform Judaism president, told MSNBC, “There’s no doubt that the underlying whole premise … was antisemitism,” he said, “The hostage-taker didn’t go to McDonald’s, didn’t go to some random place, and that is part of the story of antisemitism, to single Jews out.”
Remembering similar recent experiences hasn’t helped. Since the May 2021 war in Israel and Gaza, I’ve spent time reminding myself that I’m not crazy, and that I studied a lot of Middle East history as part of my long-ago undergraduate degree and graduate work. I knew that some of the narratives being touted online about the Israel/Palestine conflict were incorrect and badly mangled interpretations of the relevant history. I was particularly upset by the idea circulating on social media that Israelis were simply “white colonizers” subduing a brown people. This narrative didn’t reflect our thousands of years of history in Israel, nor did it account for the detail that, in fact, more than 50% of Israeli citizens are people of colour.
I recently studied a text in the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 29A, which brought these issues to mind. It explored where Jews could find the Divine Presence in Babylonia. Rabbis were discussing how to find a holy place in the Diaspora after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Abaye says the Divine Presence visits the ancient synagogue in Huzal and the synagogue that was destroyed and rebuilt in Neharde’a. From there, two different stories are told about when the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, made itself known in Neharde’a.
Abaye died in 337 CE. So, we know that nearly 1,700 years ago, synagogues existed where Jewish people went to pray and study, and some of them were ruins that were rebuilt. Our need for holy places of gathering in the Diaspora is not new. Further, according to the stories on this page of Talmud, these places didn’t always feel safe. Sometimes, even the Divine Presence herself, the Shechinah, dropped by and that was frightening – never mind modern-day hostage-takers with guns.
A bit farther down on the page, Rabbi Eleazar haKappar, a late tannaitic rabbi (who lived roughly around 220 CE) suggests that, one day, in the future, all the synagogues and study halls in Babylonia will be transported and reestablished in Israel. Even then, there was a longing for return to Israel. Archeology shows us that Rabbi Eleazar haKappar was a real person, a colleague of Judah HaNasi, who likely spent most of his life in Katzrin. There is a door lintel originally from his beit midrash, his house of study, in the Golan Museum. Found in a mosque in the Golan Heights, its inscription says, “This is the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Eleazar haKappar.”
I felt reassured by reading about the Babylonian synagogues and the longing for Israel that was felt so long ago. Our religious connection to Israel is old. It’s in every synagogue service, every Passover seder, and deep within the Talmud. Our stories are tied to Israel. Despite others’ “versions” of history, the Jewish connection to Israel cannot be made into just a 19th-century European political movement.
Also, like the rabbis, I believe that those who are inclined to do so can feel the Shechinah within ourselves and in our synagogues. Jews and allies prayed world over for the safety of the hostages at Congregation Beth Israel. It would also take the hostages’ training and bravery and the intervention of police and FBI. Many people, including Rabbi Angela Buchdahl in New York, called 911 in the effort to try to help things turn out OK.
The trauma of this experience will linger with the Jewish community of Colleyville, Tex., for a long time. A man with mental health issues was offered shelter in a synagogue and given a cup of tea by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. That man became an armed hostage-taker. He took Jews as hostages. That rabbi and his congregants bravely handled the situation. The rabbi threw a chair at the right moment – and then, this man died there.
We’ll surely learn more detail over time. Meanwhile, we continue to be on our guard. Our congregations are holy because we come to be inside them. Sometimes, the Shechinah is there, too. This is the powerful story of the synagogues in Huzal and Neharde’a.
The text reminds us that we must keep track of our Jewish identity and narrative. Journalists who call Jews “apparent” hostages or say that Jews were “detained” in their own place of worship and an FBI spokesperson who doesn’t mention antisemitism? This isn’t our narrative. We can’t let it become the history that matters.
We’re People of the Book. We’re a people with a long, well-documented history. This ages-old written and oral history, and even archeological evidence, gives us confidence to believe in who we are and our story. Our words and the way we use them matters, so we must choose carefully. No story is perfect, we are only human. Even so, we should be the ones to tell it and guard it for future generations.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.