In congregations like my own, we do not use our phones on Shabbat, so we were unaware that around the time Orli began to recite from the Torah, 1,300 miles away, at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, a man had taken the rabbi and congregants hostage. Later that night, when we learned what was still unfolding, my partner and I whispered to each other, hoping to shield Orli and her sister, Hana, a moment longer, to delay the inevitable question we knew we’d be asked: “Will it happen to us?” Orli had asked me the same question the week after Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was attacked in October 2018. She worried that we could be bombed. In other words: Are we safe at synagogue?
To these questions, I can offer no concrete answer. I do not want to lie, though I am tempted to simply insist we will be fine. I tell them: Our synagogue is well fortified. But my uncertainty in a time of hate and violence, not unlike my uncertainty in the face of illness, destabilizes me. It is unsettling to allow your children to know, early on, just how very little control you really have. Vulnerability is always jarring; it is somehow more terrible when you are meant to be a comforting presence. Plus, I have no good models for these queries.
When I was a child, I had little to challenge my belief in my parents’ ability to keep us healthy. Conversations about fear were largely retrospective. We grew up with our Holocaust refugee relatives who had fled destitution and destruction to deliverance in an American promised land. The past was terrible, but we were in the present.
My children, meanwhile, are familiar with mediports, home fluids and daily pill regimens. The girls intimately know the difference between minor surgeries and major ones. They have grown accustomed to our synagogue’s metal detectors, bag checks and security guards; they know by name the permanent security officer at the door. Indeed, the officer knows Orli’s story well. When he saw us arrive on that Saturday morning for the bat mitzvah, he and my partner, Ian, embraced. They both cried.
In “Beshalach” (“When He Let Go”), the Torah portion read on Jan. 15, the Israelites celebrate their freedom, then panic in the face of uncertainty. They bitterly complain to Moses, who has led them out of Egypt, that they fear death by thirst or starvation awaits them in the wilderness. The portion ends with a battle with the Amalekites, a conflict, the Torah tells us, that continues from generation to generation. The Amalekites become a stand-in for a mythical eternal enemy, a symbol of any evil that subsequently arises against the Jewish community.