Going to synagogue is an act of defiance

Human Resources
Lee Chottiner

Lee Chottiner

It’s time for Jews to be defiant. Again.
Jews are no strangers to defiance; we have resorted to it many times in our history, defying enemies who were intent on depriving us of our homes, our families, our very existence.
Once again, it’s time. Only this time, it’s not about the guerrilla warfare practiced by the Maccabees in Judea or the Bielski Brothers in Belarus.
This time, defiance takes the form of a simple act: praying in a synagogue.
Synagogues are becoming ground zero for antisemitic war – and it is a war – against American Jews. The Jan. 15 escape of the three hostages from Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, is only the latest example; the shootings at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad of Poway, California, remain seared in our collective memories.
As Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York said in her first Shabbat sermon since Colleyville, “I cannot assure you that this will not happen again. I do not have a neat pronouncement for how we fight back the alarming, ugly growth of antisemitism.”
I don’t have one either, but I know we must be in our synagogues. Absent a knockout weapon that will KO antisemitism, we must show our enemies that we are unbowed. We must show them defiance.
That’s what being in our synagogues can do.
I’m talking to all you Jews who are secular, unaffiliated, once-a-year synagogue goers. I’m talking to all you young Jews who have eschewed synagogue membership, some having said to my face that you want value for your money (as if Judaism were a commodity). I believe all of you are proud of your Jewish heritage, which is good. Unfortunately, it’s no longer good enough.
It’s time to return to the synagogues if, for no other reason, to show that we won’t be scared away from them.
That’s what defiance means: No matter the threat, no matter the cost, we will not turn our backs on who we are.
Judaism is under fire in the United States. We can no longer just sit back and say how fortunate we are to live here instead of Europe, where synagogues were long ago turned into fortresses due dangerous waves of antisemitism. Those waves are now crashing upon our shores.
For now, because of COVID, many synagogues are empty, its worshippers streaming services from their homes. That’s why only four Jews were inside Congregation Beth Israel when the gunman took them hostage.
But the Omicron variant will retreat, and when it does, our synagogues should not stay empty.
I’m not telling anyone how to be Jewish, and religion is a personal matter. Still, my wife and I recall our days in Wheeling, West Virginia, when among our synagogue’s members were professed agnostics who still came to services, joined classes and just generally found a way to belong.
The Jews who died at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh and Chabad of Poway would be alive today if they had done what so many Jews now do and count synagogue attendance out of their lives. Instead, they bucked that trend, stayed true to themselves and defiantly entered their synagogues to worship, even though it meant paying the ultimate price for their convictions. Maybe they didn’t think they were being defiant, but recent history – and Merriam-Webster’s definition of defiance – teaches that they were.
Today’s synagogue goers may not look so defiant. Many are grandparents, even great-grandparents; they have a host of health problems and don’t get around as spryly as they used to.
Make no mistake, though, they are the badasses of Judaism today, determined to come to synagogue despite the danger. They are heroes.
It’s time for us all to join those heroes in the pews.

(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)

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