A Different View From the Bima

I watched the man sit down in the back row by himself. He had a shaved head, was tall, and muscular looking.

File Under: Jewish

A few weeks ago a young man walked into our Saturday morning services. I was leading services, and I watched the man sit down in the back row by himself. He had a shaved head, was tall, and muscular looking.

As I looked at him, my heart stopped. My first thought was, “Is this man going to shoot us?” My heart started beating faster, I started to think to myself, “Should I go over to him? Should I ask him if he has a weapon?”

I walked over to one of our regular congregants and asked him to keep an eye on the man. I was trying to lead services but my thoughts were consumed with the possibilities of the worst. When he stood up for the Barchu prayer, I tried to make out if he might have a gun somewhere hidden underneath his clothes. As the service went on, I thought to myself, “Well if he was going to do something, he would have done it by now, right?”

I tried to shut the thoughts out of my head, but I just couldn’t.

After the service I saw the young man socializing with a few congregants. Turns out he grew up at our synagogue, had moved back to the area, and wanted to join for a Shabbat morning service. Immediately I was relieved. But I couldn’t shake the internal thoughts that consumed my head as I was trying to pray and lead services that morning.

Saturday’s shooting in San Diego has brought concerns and fears to many of us. A man walks into the most sacred space in the Jewish tradition, on the holiest day of the week, and shoots people of faith in their spiritual home — people who were there to mark the end of the Passover festival and the Sabbath day. It is synagogues, Black churches in the south, a mosque in New Zealand.

We are entering a horrifying new normal. After Sandy Hook we began to lock our synagogue’s doors. Our preschool now requires a special fob key to enter any classroom. The kids train for active shooters. We talk now at our synagogue about ordering special protective sheets for the windows so if someone fires at the building the glass won’t shatter everywhere. We have discussed how we now need to begin High Holy Day services by pointing out the exits to the building in case we need to evacuate. We are ordering bolts for all of the doors in case we need to lock ourselves in the sanctuary while calling the police.

I am brought back to my time living with the Jewish community in Turkey. This was all standard practice for them. The community prayed in an unmarked synagogue building. The Hebrew school met in an anonymous apartment. Teenagers were trained in hand-to-hand combat and asked to take turns patrolling the building on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The famous Turkish synagogues are hidden by walls and you need to be on a list to have a hope of attending services inside. It was all just normal to them, especially the younger generation.

I don’t think any of us yet know how this story will play out here in our country. But Black churches are burning, and mosques and synagogues are the targets of hate-filled shooters. I know I musn’t be afraid. But right now, it’s hard not to be. I pray to God for strength. I seek the answers to the questions that certainly my colleagues and I never learned about in rabbinical school.

I pray that I can return to a time when a guest walks into Shabbat services and my first thought is not, “Is this man going to shoot us?” There is still much more good than evil in this world. We have no choice but to overpower the darkness with light.

Rabbi Evan Schultz

Rabbi Evan Schultz serves Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was ordained in 2012 from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was selected as a Bonnie and Daniel Tisch Fellow, joining with leading scholars, professors, and like-minded students to discuss the key issues facing American synagogues and Jewish communities. Prior to attending HUC-JIR, Evan piloted a full-time teacher program at Central Synagogue, spent a year volunteering in Izmir, Turkey, with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and worked as a Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at MIT Hillel.Evan is married to Jenny and is the proud dad of three sons. He is an avid runner, guitar player, reader, and traveler.