A response to synagogue vandalism

I published this letter with Rabbi Shohama Harris Wiener after the January 13 vandalism of our Temple Beth-El of City Island (New York).

At a recent gathering of rabbinical, cantorial and rabbinic pastor students, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi reminded that it’s okay to view a synagogue as a business — so long as we know what kind of business we’re in.  Our business always must be to inspire, empower, comfort, heal, teach and serve in holy community — to uplift the world’s shards of brokenness into the light.

We returned from that gathering to shards of broken glass in our synagogue.

Just before Shabbat on January 13, Temple Beth-El of City Island was vandalized.  Intruders broke windows to infiltrate the synagogue and stole the community’s ritual items — including silver crowns adorning Holocaust-era Torah scrolls, kiddush cups and the like.  Instead of preparing to welcome Shabbat with joyful song and dance, community members and clergy arrived to a mess in the sanctuary and police investigators saying, “Don’t touch anything.”

We’re lucky: we weren’t firebombed like the Temple Beth-El of Rutherford, New Jersey; nobody was hurt and our Torahs were unharmed.  But the recent spate of violence against area synagogues is a sobering reminder of our world’s brokenness — and hopefully, too, a chance to lift those shards of brokenness into the light.

We’re a small but spirited congregation, an island outpost of Judaism attracting members from a wide area who seek our vibrant, innovative and joyful approach to Judaism, in a part of the world where there used to be more synagogues.  Our story is not unique.  Like an increasing number of congregations, ours can’t afford denominational labels: we’re unaffiliated, egalitarian and inclusive.

However one views these trends, they offer opportunities.  We view our mission as giving everyone regardless of means or creed somewhere to experience joyful Judaism.  To that end, our High Holiday services our free, our doors are open to all, and our dues are virtually nil.  We pay high prices for these choices, but as Reb Zalman rightly observed, our first business is uplifting souls at all costs.

So when vandals violated our community, it was quite a blow: violence against any house of worship is blow to all who care about holy community.  In time, the shock will wear off, clean-up will proceed, damage to our building will be repaired and lost items will be restored.  The sharp edges of broken trust in our safety, however, may take longer to fade.

Maybe that’s a good thing.  We must reject clutching even justifiable hurt.  If this incident and others like it inspire us to tend the brokenness around us and redouble our commitment to build bridges to those in our communities who feel like isolated islands – unsafe and exposed – then maybe we can redeem the recent spate of violence for the good.

That is our calling and our true business: an invitation to lift the brokenness into the light.

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