‘Es Brent... It is burning, brothers, it is burning.
In February 2019, I was in Colleyville, Texas, at Beth Israel Congregation for the bat mitzvah celebration of the daughter of Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi who was held hostage this past Shabbat. His mother-in-law is my first cousin and if there is a family simha in America, I do my best to schedule my business trips around those. This time it worked. Colleyville is perhaps the very last place in the world where you would expect that someone would enter a synagogue and hold the rabbi hostage for 12 hours. A town of 26,000 people situated between Dallas and Fort Worth... the epitome of middle America.
Our poor little town, a pity, burns!
But the America of today is a place where what used to be the unexpected, is now becoming common place. Pittsburgh, Poway, Colleyville... who’s next? Where is the next place where some crazed individual will enter a synagogue with an idea in his or her head that what bothers them is the fault of the Jews. This time, my extended family was lucky but it does not always work out that way.
Furious winds blow, the world without a stabilizing force, what America provided for 70 years after World War II, is indeed a place where furious winds blow. Moreover, those winds, based on our two millennia of experience, never bode well for Jews. When the world becomes politically unstable, when the gap between the rich and the poor becomes not a gap but a deep chasm, people look for someone on a white horse to come along and save them. History tells us that the person on the horse usually is not a friend of ours.
Breaking, burning and scattering, the tools of those who aim to destroy democracy are the same ones that have always been used by those bent on destroying the status quo or, in some cases, preserving the status quo at the expense of democracy itself. People break, burn and scatter all the vestiges of civil society, even something as sacrosanct as entering a house of prayer with the intent of doing damage to life and limb.
And you stand around with folded arms. The question is what do those of us who see this do about it? Do we look the other way because it is not happening here? Do we excuse it as an isolated incident even though it happens again and again and again? Do we chalk it up to tough times and think it will get better on its own? Seriously?
O, you stand and look while our town burns.
Alternatively, do we say “never again” and mean it? Do we look at the state of the world, how people treat each other, see the lack of respect for those with whom we disagree and accept that as the new normal? Or, are we prepared to counsel with those with whom we disagree in an effort to save civilization?
Take up the tools to put out the fire, put out the fire with your own blood.
We need to realize that sadly, people are not inherently good. Even the good Lord knew that, which is why we have the Ten Commandments and all of the others laws of conduct elucidated in the Torah.
If God had believed that all of mankind was honest and fair there would have been no need for the laws that prohibit murder, stealing, adultery or having unfair scales, to name a few. However, we’ve been given the ability to reason, to see the difference between right and wrong and to make decisions based on that knowledge. We have the tools to put out the fire.
Don’t just stand there, brothers, with your arms folded. Put out the fire, because our town is burning.”
Someone is already planning the next Colleyville, we can be sure of that. Next time it might not be a synagogue, but a church like Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 or the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017. We cannot sit idly by waiting for the next time.
Meanwhile, I have suggested to the family of Rabbi Cytron-Walker that they think about instituting a Cytron-Walker Family Purim each year on the 13th of Shevat to commemorate their deliverance from what could have been a tragic ending to a sad story. Our tradition very much supports that. Perhaps it will also help to remind people of what can happen when vigilance is abandoned.
George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For us, we dare not forget.
(The italicized lines are from the poem “Es Brent,” written by Mordechai Gebertig in 1936 as he watched his shtetl destroyed in a pogrom.)
The writer is a 38-year resident of Jerusalem, CEO of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based international business development group, past national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel and immediate past board chair of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.