Less than 48 hours after the Texas synagogue hostage situation ended, nearly 30 members of my congregation and I gathered in Urfer Family Park in Sarasota. We had rented the pavilion to hold an outdoor celebration of a minor Jewish holiday, known as the Birthday of the Trees.
We have been cautious about publicizing our synagogue, usually using our initials, KH, rather than our full name, Congregation Kol HaNeshama. The signs that directed people to the pavilion bore our initials, and except for a few of us wearing kipas (the Hebrew word for yarmulkes) and the Hebrew prayers we sang occasionally, there was little to identify us as a group of Jews.
This is by design. Over the past few years, most synagogues have taken increasingly greater security cautions, as antisemitic attacks across our nation have both persisted and increased. This has been especially true since the attack and murders at the Tree of Life synagogue complex in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. Eleven Jews died that day.
Although the horror in Texas ended with all hostages escaping alive, the eleven hour standoff was traumatic and harrowing as we waited in shock and prayer. I cannot begin to imagine how the rabbi and three other hostages felt, or their families and fellow congregants.
On Monday in Sarasota it was a beautiful, windy afternoon. School was out for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Children were clambering over the playground equipment as their parents watched. A bicycle sported a “happy birthday” balloon. A tiny boy on an even tinier scooter sped by.
Rich – one of our security guards – hovered nearby. He is not a big guy, but with his serious demeanor, heavy vest, gun clearly visible, and all the accoutrements of a well-prepared guard, he is a daunting presence.
While leading the service, I watched out of the corner of my eye as a steady stream of people approached him. During a lull I wandered over and asked if they were inquiring about what we were doing. “No,” he replied, “They want to know why I’m here.”
He said that when he informed each person that he was protecting a Jewish group, the response was always the same – a sad nod, shake of the head, and comments along the lines of “I feel for them,” and “I’m sorry you have to be here.”
I’m sorry he had to be there too. I am sorry that our small synagogue has to pay for security guards every time we meet. I am sorry that people are afraid to be openly Jewish. I am sorry that houses of worship are locking their front doors and worshippers are slipping in the side door instead.
I have often comforted myself by believing that we are less of a target, because we are a small congregation that doesn’t even own a building. But Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville is one of the smallest in their community. The reality is that size doesn’t matter. We all are potential targets.
Am I frightened? Of course. I’d be a fool not to be.
Am I going to stop being a synagogue rabbi? Absolutely not. I am proud to lead my congregation in joyous and meaningful observance of Judaism, even as we navigate the double threat of Covid and antisemitism.
I can’t control the outside influences that sometimes seem to loom on all sides. All I can control is how I respond and what I communicate to the people in my congregation. They’re frightened too, but like me, they continue to show up, continue to be proudly and joyously Jewish, and continue to do their utmost to make the world a better place for everyone.
This essay first appeared on the Opinion Page of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on January 20, 2022