Beyond the Bimah: The Man in the Back of the Chapel (Jewish Journal)

This week there was a man who sat in the back of the chapel. I did not know him. He walked in after services began, so I could not introduce myself. He stared at me. He stared at me the entire service. He did not pick up a book. He did not whisper the words of the prayers, not even for the Shema or Aleinu. His eyes never left me.

I have never been the type of Jew who doubted or ignored anti-Semitism. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote “There is a high cost of living to be paid by a Jew. He has to be exalted in order to be normal in a world that is neither propitious for nor sympathetic to his survival. Some of us, tired of sacrifice and exertion, often wonder: Is Jewish existence worth the price? Others are overcome with panic; they are perplexed, and despair of recovery. In trying to understand Jewish existence a Jewish philosopher must look for agreement with the men of Sinai as well as with the people of Auschwitz. We are the most challenged people under the sun. Our existence is either superfluous or indispensable to the world; it is either tragic or holy to be a Jew.”

I am the type of Jew who vigorously celebrates every Simcha.

I am the type of Jew who tries to turn Purim into a blowout celebration.

I am the type of Jew who loves Shabbat and centers his life around it.

I am the type of Jew who praises the brilliance of our rabbis.

I am the type of Jew who can hear Bari Weiss, Ben Shapiro, David Wolpe, Rick Jacobs, Jeffrey Goldberg, Sharon Brous, Daniel Gordis and attempt to make sense of all of their opinions as a part of the same narrative.

And I am the type of Jew who has not for one second ignored the realities of the Jewish masses fleeing France.

I am the type of Jew who feels the pain of a spear piercing through my heart when Jews publicly bash Israel and are silent when Israelis are murdered.

I am the type of Jew who heard the White-Supremists scream “Jews will not replace us.”

I am the type of Jew who cried during the film Paper Clips.

I am the type of Jew who fought back when a room full of prominent rabbis told me the holocaust could never happen in America.

To be a Jew is both tragic and holy.

These past two weeks I was strong. I walked into Starbucks proudly wearing my Kippah ready to explain to anyone who asked about what was going on. I took the phone calls and answered emails about security, prayer and anti-Semitism. I gathered my staff and opened space for them to speak and my congregation to heal.

And then I walked into synagogue last Friday night and cold sweat came across my forehead. I was entering the doors of a synagogue, a week after others did the same only to lose everything. I led services Friday night. That man sat in the back of the chapel. And he stared at me. I did not know him. I was not sure why he was there. My thoughts were not holy, they were only tragic.