The tragic ritualization of antisemitism attack response in US Jewry - opinion

We will add the name of this town in Texas to the lexicon of antisemitism and the American-Jewish experience, and hope that a long time passes before we need to undergo all of this again. 

 A MEMORIAL is set up outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh following the shooting in which 11 people were killed in October 2018. (photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
A MEMORIAL is set up outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh following the shooting in which 11 people were killed in October 2018.
(photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)

Part of the beauty of Judaism is how it evolves over time to meet the changing, emerging needs of every new generation. 

For some, the core ancient ritual of the Seder has grown with the evolution of the Jewish people, with social justice themes permeating each step of the evening. For others, the process of immersing into the mikveh ritual bath]has grown from being a way to mark specific life transitions and cycles, to being a space to make the mundane sacred, to honor our health, our bodies and our relationships, and to make meaning in the water. 

And sometimes, new rituals pop up – bat mitzvah, confirmation, simhat habat – giving space for new affirmations of the Jewish experience.

Then there are the rituals no one wants to take part in. On January 15, like too many of us, I participated in many of those. I got “the call.” The call from my husband, followed by the call from my brother, making sure I knew that something, some new tragedy, was playing out for the Jewish people.

We did not know where it was happening at first, but thanks to social media, the details came in fast and furious, and so too did the familiar instinctive responses:

 Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where four hostages were held. (credit: JTA) Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where four hostages were held. (credit: JTA)
  1. Google the synagogue in question – do I know anyone who goes there?
  2. Facebook stalk the rabbi – do we have friends in common? Who do I need to reach out to?
  3. Start texting – I am responsible for making sure my mom is informed about global events besetting the Jewish people, and I want to check in with my fellow educator friends, and to do a wellness check on a few clergy members who I love.
  4. Refresh newsfeeds for more information (repeat throughout the day).
  5. Figure out what to say on social media – how can I add my voice to the growing cacophony in a meaningful way?

Rituals no one wants to take on. Things no one should ever get used to but that have become a hallmark of the American-Jewish experience. Particularly as a Jewish educator, the reality of each antisemitic hate crime shatters my illusions anew. Like many, I am reconfronted with challenge upon challenge. 

How can I reassure my learners and colleagues that they are safe in Jewish spaces, despite growing evidence to the contrary? 

Is the best next step to reconfigure content and focus on empowering learners to respond to and process antisemitism, or is that “letting them win,” and the sacred work of educating future generations of Jewish leaders in the beauty of our tradition should continue unobstructed?

Should we keep thanking law enforcement officials for all that they did to deescalate the situation in Colleyville, or is it time to call out the FBI special agent who implied that this was not an attack on the Jewish community?

The work of Jewish education, by its nature, is the work of “yes, and.” We go above and beyond. We allow boundaries to be fluid, working longer hours when called upon, giving of ourselves and our families and our tables and even our emotional and mental wellbeing.

Many of us see this work as sacred and are called to give our full selves to it. But we did not sign up for that gift to include our physical safety.

Stepping into a Jewish space should not require a faith leader who, in addition to pastoral care training and knowledge of rabbinic texts, needs to be trained in how to throw a chair at a would-be assailant to save lives.

It should not be surprising to other members of other faiths that to be in Jewish spaces in 2022 is to have security protocols in place, to have a presence of armed guards and to do the work of self-preservation, because we know these norms all too well. 

We also know what too-often comes after an attack like this. Gaslighting, questions of whether we as Jews are “really” victims, desperately hoping that those who we know and respect are showing up as allies instead of joining the deafening silence of too many.

We are shattered, we are resigned, we are called upon to move forward. Just as we did after Charlottesville, after Pittsburgh, after Poway, we will find our new rituals. We will send love to Colleyville, we will check on each other and say thank you anew to our security guards and clergy, and we will absorb this new pain and carry it with us as we recalibrate to the newest new normal.

We will add the name of this town in Texas to the lexicon of antisemitism and the American-Jewish experience, and hope that a long time passes before we need to undergo all of this again. 

But we’ll be prepared for when we do, and in the meantime, we will continue to plant the seeds of a better tomorrow that we strive for in our learners. We will focus on the rituals of living Jewishly, carrying this identity proudly, and will care for our communities, and hopefully ourselves, holding each moment just a little more precious. 

The writer is senior director of Knowledge, Ideas and Learning at The Jewish Education Project.