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I Don’t Want to Pray Under Armed Guard

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I Don’t Want to Pray Under Armed Guard

On the synagogue massacre October 29, 2018
Public safety

In the wake of the carnage at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh—not far from where a close relative of mine lives, and in the neighborhood where my wife grew up—President Trump made what I’m sure he believed was a helpful observation. “If there had been an armed guard inside the temple,” he said, “they would have been able to stop him.”

Perhaps so. It seemed self-evident to him; it’s not as obvious when one serves on the board of trustees of a synagogue. Of course, we have had to take security precautions. We have an armed police presence on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; we’ve erected barriers to block a car from driving into the chapel and mowing down congregants. And, in a message to all members, the rabbi has assured us that “there will be police coverage during all pick up and drop off times for our schools and school-related events, as well as for all evening events, minimally for the next several days, as we continue to assess next steps. In addition, the police will be intensifying their patrolling of the property.” 

But armed force is not, to put it mildly, the solution to the problem of violent Jew hatred—which could have touched Trump’s own daughter and son-in-law at the Shabbat services they attend. A memo to the president from our board might inform him of the realities of congregation life. Every congregation is financially self-supporting. Ours is reasonably well-off, but retaining private security guards for all services would be no easy thing. We have daily morning and evening services, early childhood classes, after-school religious classes, and bar and bat mitzvah training. There’s Israeli dancing some evenings, basketball for teenagers on others.

An armed guard for each would inevitably mean fewer funds available for the classes and events themselves. We must pay our rabbi, our executive director, and cooks who prepare the meal after the Shabbat service. I could not help but note that the Tree of Life synagogue shares its building with two other congregations—undoubtedly because each could not afford its own. (The synagogue’s Hebrew name, Or Simcha, by the way, translates as Light of Joy).

But even were we not to have to pay anything for this endless security, we might continue, in our memo to the president (at least if I were writing it; we’d discuss it for a long time!), with a question: Do you want to pray each week under armed guard? Do you want your children to get the message that your religion is so much under threat, so dangerous to practice, that you need police protection? Might that not be a victory for those who would prefer to see Jews become, in Hitler’s phrase, an extinct race?

I happen to be among those Jews concerned that too many congregations have made their approach to observance synonymous with left-liberal politics. But in America, that is their choice, just as it is a choice for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to welcome the Honduran caravan, as it once welcomed my grandparents and, more recently, Sergei Brin. And I understand their thinking: that tolerance for one is tolerance for all, Jews included.

For decades, Shabbat services at conservative synagogues such as Tree of Life have included a prayer for our government, inspired by the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who told the Jews in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to Adonai on its behalf, for in its prosperity, you shall prosper.” For the most part, one intones it by rote. Less so right now.

Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leader and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.

Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.

Mr. President, I’d prefer to offer that prayer, rather than to pray under armed guard.

Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

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