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After Pittsburgh, Reclaiming Sacred Space

My older daughter asked me if we were going to be bombed.

We were walking into a Brooklyn synagogue. It was a Saturday morning one week after eleven Jews were killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue last October by an alleged white nationalist. I promised her we would not. Then I eyed a large black duffle shoved under the pew in front of me and whispered to the woman who handed out the prayer books: Is that yours?

I had also been in synagogue, at Adas Israel, the prominent Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., the morning the gunman arrived at Tree of Life some 250 miles away.

When news reached me, I wasn’t deep in prayer. I was standing in the bathroom, laughing with the daughter of a friend, when a woman walked in weeping. “Didn’t you hear?” she asked, her eyes rimmed red.

Of course I hadn’t. Just moments before I had been standing, unaware, on the bima, the dais that faces the congregation. I had actually just received a blessing. It was my partner Ian’s birthday and our anniversary. I had been musing over the fact that I somehow found myself, in a replay of my childhood, showing up here, weekly. I had asked the rabbis for a blessing almost as a lark, a nod toward Ian’s newfound religiosity. In fact, it was deeply moving.

The juxtaposition of those moments— that blessing, that abomination — would fully roll over me when Shabbat ended and I dove into social media, gulping the searing stories of this burst of violence.

It was the same in early October this year, when I turned my phone on after the silence of Yom Kippur, this time to find hate had reared its murderous head in Germany, as Jews in the city of Halle observed the holiday. In Halle, the Jews had barricaded themselves in the synagogue against the onslaught. I can see them there, behind the door, a bit woozy from their fast, bewildered that this is happening again. The authorities confirmed the attack was propelled by anti-Semitism, but hadn’t we known that? When a synagogue in Poway, California was attacked earlier this year, I called my father, “I can’t believe it,” I said.

He replied, “You can’t?”

I spent a lot of my early adult life not going to synagogue. My father goes to shul, as we call it, religiously, if you will, just as I did as a child. If you sit next to him, he’ll happily point out a contested translation of a Hebrew word or muse about changes to the liturgy. When I moved away from home. I didn’t much enjoy going without him; the engagement was gone.

But when I first gave birth a decade ago, I realized I missed the reliable rituals of my childhood: The meandering Friday night meals and Shabbat lunches and conversation (if not, necessarily, synagogue services). But both my girls went to the pre-school at Adas, and Ian unexpectedly began to push us to attend services as well. He is Jewish, but didn’t grow up observant. Shabbat was fresh to him, offered answers I hadn’t been seeking, presented a welcome pause in our frenetic day-to-day I hadn’t engaged. I began to see synagogue attendance through their eyes, these three newcomers to religious observance. I took small steps toward new mindfulness, turned away from email on Saturday, began looking forward to the sermon, to thinking each week about how we connect to the past and present, how this text still informs. I began to see this space as a place of internal investigation, of communal nourishment, and of unspoken safety.

I had been thinking, the morning of Pittsburgh, about how our quartet of rabbis (three women, one man) had also opened the door to that return for me. Here the familiar cadences of the prayers I know from childhood are bolstered by a new, buoyant, frankly political, spirituality undergirded by Jewish identity but not bounded by it. It is a way of framing the divine as how we act in the world.

Oddly enough, despite persistent references to God from political bully pulpits, statistically most Americans have abandoned faith these days. So we are, in some ways, outliers, we four.

And, the building – well, it matters. We are raising our children to feel the synagogue is their place. Every Saturday they walk freely, they sit, they don’t sit. They listen, they don’t listen, they ask questions; they complain, they rebel. Everyone knows them.

But that safety is no longer a given, if it ever was. This year, at Yom Kippur Kol Nidrei services, held outdoors under the light of a half moon, surrounded by thousands of co-religionists, I actively pushed down the anxiety that nagged at me the week leading up to this: Should I let my children out of my sight? What if we need to run? Our rabbis thanked the police and security teams, multiple times, from the dais. We thanked them too. We sat beneath the stars, our children ran freely.

We are now a congregation of congregations, those who have experienced anti-religious violence in this strange new global era from Christchurch to Halle — Muslims and Sikhs, traditionally black churches and Jews – forcing all of us to remain in our space with intention and conviction. Nothing is rote anymore.

And we have adapted. Enormous grey metal detectors now permanently shadow the synagogue entrance, staffed by a phalanx of security guards, bolstered by a genial detective sergeant from the police department; a police car idles out front. The guards know us, and we them. They rib me over why I always have too many bags. The sergeant chuckles about how hard it is to coral my children. They wonder where my crew is, if I walk in alone.

Each beep and buzz of the weekly weapons sweep is a new hymn: a murmur to take nothing for granted, this new security, this age-old dread.

During Rosh Hashana this year, I was back in my parents’ shul. There, too, the doors are now guarded, our guards are now up. But then my father turned to me to discuss the translation of Psalm 118. It seemed apt for the moment.

From the straits I called to you, reads the text, you answered me with expansiveness.

The word in Hebrew is hametzar, the straits. Or: the narrow place. Narrowness in biblical poetry is often seen as all those things that are difficult, that challenge, that compress- those things that cause us to fear. Redemption here, then, in this line is not to closing us off, it is moving outward, it is expansive, it is an outstretched arm both to those other communities that have experienced this fear and those that have turned toward us, to see the largeness of our world, it is to recognize the narrowness of hate, and to see how it narrows worlds.

I hold on to that idea even as I think of our Yom Kippur in the open, yet closely guarded, of those Jews behind that barricade, and of my children, still running beneath the stars.

Sarah Wildman is the host of the Foreign Policy magazine podcast First Person and the author of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.


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