Har Nof massacre

The sad and shocking result of the massacre is now known to everyone.

WORSHIPERS GATHER at the Har Nof synagogue that was the site of a brutal terror attack (photo credit: REUTERS)
WORSHIPERS GATHER at the Har Nof synagogue that was the site of a brutal terror attack
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was Tuesday morning, just two weeks ago. I had just finished leading the morning prayers in the national-religious synagogue in the heavily haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood of Har Nof where I serve as rabbi. One of my congregants approached me and asked me to read a passage from the Book of Psalms. When I asked him why, he said, “Rabbi, there was a terrorist attack on Agassi Street and there’s been a fatality.” I felt like the ground under my feet was moving and I began to worry about what I would see when I ventured out onto the street.
The sad and shocking result of the massacre is now known to everyone.
I would like to tell you about a lesser-known result of the attack. I experienced a process of change in the neighborhood, something that’s never happened to me before in the 13 years I’ve been the rabbi of my national-religious congregation.
The neighborhood is made up mostly by haredim of various types, with maybe a quarter of the population identifying with the national-religious sector.
The local authority is almost entirely haredi. My congregants and I have been living within this reality for many years now, trying to survive here in west Jerusalem. For the most part, these two communities pretty much keep to themselves – there’s almost no interaction between the two. It’s not that there are no friendships between the members of each community.
There are. But there’s never been an event in which we both participated together. A haredi rabbi was never invited to give a lecture in my synagogue and I’ve never been asked to speak in front of a haredi audience. We’ve pretty much just existed in two parallel worlds.
But then this brutal massacre took place in a house of prayer and four innocent people were murdered while immersed in prayer and wrapped in their prayer shawls. It might not be nice to say, but this earthquake we just suffered opened our hearts and melted the ice that had kept the two communities apart.
It didn’t take long before my phone started ringing.
The head of the local authority, the haredi rabbi Spitzer called me to ask me to attend the (very moving) memorial ceremony. The heads of all the religious streams in Israel had been invited: the renowned imam of Acre, the heads of the various churches in Israel and, of course, Druse leaders. (Unfortunately, upon the conclusion of the ceremony the imam returned to his car to find that someone had thrown acid on it.) All these religious leaders stood in their finest ceremonial paraphernalia in front of the synagogue where the massacre had taken place just the day before. It took great courage for everyone there to participate in this ceremony that was open to the public, in the center of this haredi neighborhood. The next day, I received many phone calls, urging me to participate in an upcoming rabbinical conference.
At the conference, many people encouraged me to make a speech to the crowd that had gathered.
I must say this surprised me greatly. It crushed any preconceptions I had of the haredi community. I was accustomed to being vilified and attacked in the haredi papers and radio shows. And suddenly I was being offered a way to connect with them. And then at the end of the seven-day mourning period there was another memorial at Rabbi Ruben’s synagogue, where the massacre had taken place. The gabbai called me the night before and asked me to attend.
This might sound like a petty matter, but I assure you it is not. Community members and rabbis who for so many years had lived side-by-side without as much as a hello to each other were finally interested in becoming closer and working in cooperation with one another.
The statement that is often heard following tragic events, namely that it’s such a shame that we need to suffer such terrible misfortunes before we can come together, holds true here, too – but I believe that it is not so simple. I believe that this brutal murder was the first time that the haredi community experienced what it means to be a part of Israeli society. When I heard that haredi leaders had called upon their members to participate in the funeral of the Druse policeman, I was surprised again, on a completely new level.
Not only that, they called upon their community to include the name of the policeman in their memorial prayers in the synagogue. Suddenly, during the throes of grief, the haredi community was experiencing now, for the first time, what the general community in Israel has been experiencing for six decades now.
While I visited with one of the bereaved families during the week of mourning, I overheard a haredi rabbi say that it’s a shame haredi men don’t know how to use guns, that if they did, then they might have been able to defend themselves.
The haredi community is finally taking a stand and saying that they cannot sit back and let the IDF and the police protect them – they must learn to protect themselves. Because there is so much theft in the neighborhood, a group of men had already organized themselves and formed a “neighborhood watch,” a group of volunteers that patrols the neighborhood.
Granted, it did begin as a way to stop theft, but everyone agrees that this will be helpful for security reasons now, too. The haredi community is beginning to realize that they are also affected by the security situation in Israel.
Apparently one of the victims of the massacre showed incredible courage and struggled with the terrorist, and even attempted to strangle him, all the while calling to his fellow worshipers to run for their lives. As a result of his actions, many lives were saved that day. I have no theological explanation for this murder and I will make no attempt to draw any conclusions from it.
My aim has been merely to describe this very intensive week following the tragic murder, and to express my awe of words that had never been spoken during all the years we’ve been living side by side.
I learned this past week that the stereotypes I had held about the haredi community were misguided and that this community is much more complex than it looks from the outside, when all you see is its seemingly unequivocal attitude toward Israel as a state and toward the IDF.
Will these new understandings lead to a larger process of integration? I personally believe they will. I saw firsthand how they desire to connect with the Israeli experience and find their own unique way to unify our communities.
And if this does in fact occur, I predict that Israeli society will be much more fortified and cohesive than ever before. It is my hope that the haredi leadership lead its members safely, while preserving its uniqueness, on its way to becoming more integrated into Israeli society, a process we have been yearning for for many years.
The author is a rabbi and president of the Feuerstein Institute.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.