Birkat Gomel – Reciting a Blessing after the attack at Congregation Beth Israel

Posted on January 23, 2022

People will often say that we Jews have a blessing or a prayer for every occasion – and they’d be right. Whatever happens there is a blessing to be said, praising and thanking God. When a person survives a near death experience, they recite Birkat Gomel. God is thanked for rewarding the undeserving with goodness, and the community responds: “May the One who has bestowed goodness upon you continue to bestow every goodness upon you forever.” It’s on page 253 if you want to check later. I’m not sure what scenarios the Rabbis were imagining for the recitation of this prayer.

Today it is most often recited after surviving an accident or emerging from life-saving surgery, moments worthy of blessings for God’s goodness. But tomorrow, in a synagogue in Colleyville, TX., four men will recite this blessing because they survived a terror attack in that very synagogue. They will recite this blessing because after spending eleven hours as hostages they were able to escape. They will recite this blessing because the Rabbi threw a chair at the terrorist and they ran for their lives. They will recite this blessing because thank God, thanks to law enforcement, and thanks to those four men themselves, they are alive today.

But in the aftermath of what happened in Colleyville, I find it hard to talk about goodness and hard to talk about blessings.

As some of you will know, my wife’s family predominantly live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and at about 2pm, our time, she received a text from her sister: “Hostage situation at Colleyville Temple.” We immediately flicked through the news channels expecting to see some coverage of this terrorist incident – there was nothing. We looked through social media, and although there were a couple of references from the Colleyville police to a developing incident there was no news about what was happening. Where was the coverage? Where was the outrage? Where was the concern?

The only source of information was the synagogue’s Facebook page livestream, which was still active. On the screen a slide contained words of prayer: “My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception. Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.” And alongside these words you could hear the voice of the terrorist; speaking evil and hate, shouting at the frightened congregation, threatening and terrifying those four who had gathered to pray.

It took about another hour and a half for the news channels to finally catch up and begin covering the story. That might not seem like a long time, but it felt like an eternity. It was a lonely and frightening 90 minutes. And I have to be honest, that while we waited for news, we wondered about the type of coverage that this attack would have received were it not a Synagogue, but another House of Worship.

Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, we feared the worst and prayed that things would be resolved peacefully. One hostage was released and still we waited. As we put our children to sleep, I finally saw a tweet suggesting that the remaining hostages were safe. There were unclear reports about a boom and then gunfire, before eventually there was a Tweet from the Governor and confirmation on the News Channels – they had escaped. We exhaled for what felt like the first time since two o’clock. And then there were tears; the tears that we had not been willing to cry throughout the ordeal; they were tears of relief, tears of exhaustion, but also tears of joy.

Unsurprisingly, I keep thinking about Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the hero that he is. A Rabbi who opens his door to a person in need, offering them a cup of tea and warmth. A Rabbi who could provide the vital non-anxious presence in the room to ensure that a horrific situation did not escalate. And a Rabbi who at the vital moment was able to throw a chair at their attacker, saving his congregants and himself as they ran to safety.

And so here we are, celebrating our first Shabbat in the shadow of what happened at Congregation Beth Israel and I still don’t know what to say, I don’t know how we should respond, I don’t know what our next steps should be.

So let me tell you what I do know.

I know that this was an antisemitic attack. The terrorist chose a synagogue because he believed that Jews control the Government and so could organize the release of a prisoner. The lives that were put in danger were Jewish lives, specifically chosen because of that fact. The words of the terrorist, heard through the livestream, were clearly and unequivocally antisemitic. We have generations of experience in recognizing what is and what is not antisemitic. Make no mistake, the events at Congregation Beth Israel on Shabbat were antisemitic.

I believe that when FBI Special Agent Matthew DeSarno said that the terrorist “was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community” – he was trying to be reassuring. But these words since retracted and corrected, had the opposite effect. We knew that he was wrong and in that moment it felt like he did not see us, did not recognize our pain, and did not understand what we had just experienced.

As I reflect on the events of last week, I know that for me alongside the immense pain and sadness of an attack on a synagogue and the holding of hostages on Shabbat; I am also pained at the way the rest of the world failed to react.

A terrorist attack was perpetrated on American soil, with American citizens held hostage in their place of worship for eleven hours – but in the aftermath almost silence. Yes, there have been interviews with Rabbi Charlie and yes there has been some coverage of events in the news. But this should have been THE front-page story – it was at the bottom of page 10 in The Globe on Sunday in case you were wondering. Rabbi Charlie should have become a household name for his courageous and heroic actions. And where were the messages of support for the Jewish community? Where are the lawns signs standing against antisemitism or standing with Congregation Beth Israel? Where is the outrage about what happened?

I don’t have a good answer.

There is a part of me that fears that this is another example of antisemitism. The perception, especially in America, is that we are affluent and secure, we aren’t looked at as a victimized minority, despite the fact that in 2020 over half of all religious bias crimes in the US were targeted against Jews.[1] People have a blind-spot when it is Jews who are attacked, they just don’t notice it in the same way as certain other examples of hate. And I am also concerned that perhaps Dara Horn is correct, her book is entitled: “People Love Dead Jews,” and so in Colleyville because no innocent Jewish lives were lost, no-one is interested.

If I want to be charitable, maybe they missed it as the media quickly lost interest, maybe they don’t understand why an antisemitic attack in Texas affects a synagogue in Wayland, maybe they don’t realize that we Jews invest millions of dollars in security spending to keep our synagogues, schools, and Jewish institutions safe.

But I am unwilling to be helpless. I hear in Rabbi Charlie’s prayer that we recited earlier a reminder that we always have power. And so, as I felt sad and isolated in the silence that followed the attack on Congregation Beth Israel, I reached out to my interfaith Clergy colleagues to let them know how I was feeling. I shared the pain, I shared the fear, and I shared the loneliness. And immediately they responded, they reached out with emails of love, concern, and support – for me, for our community, and for the Jewish people.

The silence did not mean they didn’t care, they just didn’t realize that I needed to hear from them. Sometimes we have to tell others what we need, we can’t always expect them to know. This is something that I have done personally as a Rabbi; we need to do it on an institutional level, on a political level, but we also need to do it on a personal level. If the silence was deafening, if the silence was painful, if the silence was troubling, I would urge you to reach out to the people in your lives, you may be pleasantly surprised by the response.

And let me tell you one other thing that I know. I know that we will not be defeated or intimidated by the terrorists, the extremists, and the fanatics. We will not allow the voices of hate and antisemitism to define us or the way we act and behave. Yes, we will take precautions around security; but we will still find those ways to live up to the highest ideals of our faith; welcoming the stranger, opening our doors, and being a light unto the nations. Together, holding each other up and with the support of our neighbors we know that we can overcome the challenges that lie ahead. I know that we are up to the task.

There is so much pain and trauma in the aftermath of the attack on Congregation Beth Israel; it is unfortunately a Shabbat that will live on in our American Jewish memory. We can memorialize and lament what happened, or we can transform it into a learning and teaching moment. There is learning that we in the Jewish community need to do. While I wish we didn’t, we need to make sure that our security procedures are up to date and that everyone receives the necessary training to respond to crisis situations – the training that saved the people in Colleyville. And then we need to teach; we need to teach our friends and colleagues explaining to them why this was an antisemitic attack, reminding them of the support that we need, and helping them to be the allies that they aspire to be.

Tomorrow, when Rabbi Charlie and his congregation recite Birkat Gomel they will praise God for the fact that they survived a near death experience. I want to praise God for the gift that is Rabbi Charlie, who welcomed a stranger in of the street and offered them tea and who risked his own life to save his congregants. But more than this it is for the way that Rabbi Charlie has carried himself in the aftermath of this attack. While clearly traumatized, his kindness has still shone through in every interview and exchange; despite his suffering, he has found a way to bring healing and comfort to others; in the midst of a horrific attack, he has become our teacher reminding us of the power we possess and the fact that we are never helpless.

Tomorrow, we will not be in Congregation Beth Israel to respond to their prayer of Birkat Gomel, and so today on behalf our TST community, I say to Rabbi Charlie and his congregants: “May the One who has bestowed goodness upon you continue to bestow every goodness upon you forever.” And let us say Amen.

[1] – there are not yet figures from the FBI for 2021.