Seattle's 'hidden Yidden'

The response of the Jewish community to the attack by a Muslim American raises troubling questions.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
'No services tonight. Watch the news," read a hand-written sign posted at one of Seattle's Conservative synagogues on Friday afternoon, a few hours after a Muslim American forced his way into the Jewish Federation building where I worked for four years in the early 1990s. Naveed Afzal Haq, 30, shot and killed assistant director Pam Waechter and injured five other office workers before turning himself in to police. I was part of the Seattle Jewish community for more than 20 years before making aliya, and paid my way through college teaching at that Conservative congregation. How said that the response in some quarters to the tragic attack against a fellow Jewish institution seemed to be to "close up, retreat to your living room, keep your head down." Security concerns also closed down a larger suburban Conservative synagogue just across Lake Washington in the hours after the attack, but most other Seattle-area synagogues did choose to hold Friday night services, relying on law enforcement to provide protection. One can only imagine how grieving, stunned Jews trying to grapple with a heinous anti-Semitic terror attack committed in broad daylight in one of the most livable cities in the United States felt when they came to seek some kind of spiritual refuge and communal support on Friday night. But all they found when they arrived at shul were locked doors, no rabbi, no fellow congregants and an instruction to turn on the TV on Shabbat. Since it's clear that Jews all over the world are now facing the same enemies, it's too bad that those Seattle Jewish leaders who chose to turn inward did not try to replicate what works for Jews here in Israel to ease the pain in the aftermath of terror. The day after the horrific bombing that claimed six Jewish lives at Cafe Hillel on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem in 2003, Rabbi Ian Pear of Congregation Shir Hadash sent an e-mail to members urging especially spirited prayer that Friday night: "In attacking our neighborhood, I am convinced that the terrorists were not simply trying to score a military victory. They were, I believe, also attempting to wage a spiritual war against all Jews living in Israel," he wrote. "This was not simply a physical attack but also an assault on our spirit; a spiritual response is also required... and that is entirely within our abilities. "The terrorists wanted to turn our community into a Jewish cemetery. We must proclaim with all our strength - and through our tefillah that it is a joyful, soulful place where the exultation of being a part of rebuilding the Jewish nation permeates our very essence. "When we do so, we will have frustrated the terrorists' goals." Our prayer that night in the shul building just a few hundred yards away from Cafe Hillel soared to the heavens, as we found comfort and strength in joining together. The next morning after services, Rabbi Pear led us to the Cafe Hillel site, where we learned a piece of Torah together in memory of the victims, in an effort "to turn the unholy into the holy." Israelis learned long ago that there is no running away from Islamic terror. IT'S HARD for some laid-back, peace-loving Jews of the Pacific NW, who are so very well integrated into the general community and hold interfaith meetings with local Muslims, to assimilate the idea that they may have become targets of Islamic fundamentalist violence. Several Seattle Jews I have spoken with since the attack said they are convinced that the perpetrator was a psychopath and not a terrorist, since he had allegedly been recently convicted of lewd conduct. But this psychopath chose to drive an hour from his home to the central address of the Jewish community in another city, enter the building and shout, as he started his indiscriminate shooting spree, that he was a Muslim upset about Israel. THE SEATTLE terror attack came less than a week after the 40,000-strong Jewish community held a Support Israel rally in a suburban park. The Jewish Federation was the prime sponsor and Pam Waechter was one of the volunteers for the event that brought out about 2,000 people to wave the flag for Israel in its war against Hizbullah terror. There's no doubt in my mind that some in the Seattle Jewish community will come to the misguided conclusion that had there been no rally, there would have been no terror attack. It's a manifestation of the attitude that has some Jews still believing that if they just keep quiet and speak up only for the rights of others and not for their own, the bad guys will leave them alone. They fail to acknowledge that history has taught us that rather than rendering us vulnerable, public protest ensures us more protection and respect. As in most American Jewish communities, only a tiny percentage of Jews in Seattle are affiliated with any Jewish organizations. The vast majority are what one former Seattle Federation director describes as "the hidden Yidden." I fear that the latest incident will serve only to drive some insecure Jews further underground into the accommodating Seattle landscape. The writer, a former Seattle resident, is author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times