The synagogue means different things to different people, but I never really felt unsafe there. After what happened in Pittsburgh, that feels naiveby Jack Mayorcas / October 29, 2018 / Leave a comment
Front pages of New York newspapers on Sunday. Photo: PA Synagogues mean lots of different things to different Jews around the world. The variety of their design and denomination make up an essential part of the rich tapestry of Jewish life around the world. The synagogue is a place of worship, of sanctuary, of education, of friendship, a place to celebrate life and marriage, and to commemorate those who have died. Like many secular Jewish people in the UK, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is one of the few times in a year that I regularly go to synagogue. As I am not particularly religious, my plan to cope with the 25 hours of abstaining from food and water involves strategically maximising my time outside of the actual synagogue itself. I go for walks in Hyde Park, and catch up with friends at other synagogues that I don’t often see throughout the year—a practise informally known as “Shul Hopping.” I do always make it back in time for “Neilah,” which is the final service of Yom Kippur and the one that many find particularly moving. For me, it’s a final chance to reflect on the year that has passed, think about ways in which one might change in the year to come—and a rare opportunity for one to truly step away from the stressful nature of daily life. Despite the peaceful sanctity of the services inside, the sad reality is that huge amounts of work go into keeping everyone safe and preserving that calm. One established feature of the High Holy Days is for members of the congregation to volunteer for the security rota. Alongside professional security staff, volunteers from the Community Security Trust (CST) and the police, security volunteers from the Synagogue play a key role in ensuring the safety of those praying inside. We are there to welcome people who approach the synagogue, find out if they are members or visitors, ask some friendly questions and generally provide a visible deterrent. (I’ll admit I have often also found it a prime opportunity to talk with friends, or my mother, who sometimes happens to be on the same shift as me.) According to the CST—which also monitors antisemitism—there were 727 anti-semitic incidents between January and June 2018 in the UK, the second highest figure recorded for similar periods. Over the past two years, there have routinely been over 100 incidents each month. This increase has led to some synagogues—including mine—putting additional measures in place. Due to fear of vehicular ramming attacks, additional procedures were put in place around the perimeter of the synagogue in advance of this year’s Yom Kippur and the High Holy Days. Additionally, once the main bulk of the congregation had arrived, the main doors to the synagogue were closed and a lock put on from the inside. This meant that as people came and went throughout the day, they would need to knock on the door. The person on the inside would take the lock off and let them in. During my shift I was placed inside the locked doors. At the time, a small part of me found this to be a little laborious. A possibly naive sense of complacency always led me to think: “surely nothing could really happen here?” Or, “why would anyone really want to target our synagogue?” All semblance of that complacency was shattered by the tragic events in the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh this weekend. At the time of writing, not all details have yet emerged but what we do know is utterly horrifying. A gunman entered the place of worship and murdered 11 people, before injuring several police officers. On the suspects’ now-suspended Gab social media account, there was a stream of horrific antisemitism, conspiracy theories and criticism of the refugee aid group Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Police seen in front of the synagogue in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Photo: PA As the actions of this gunman show, and as my friend Marlon Solomon says in his brilliant one-man show about antisemitism A Lizard’s Tale: “conspiracy theories matter; they have real-life consequences for people.” Moreover, the language used in politics matters. From the dog-whistle racism to the abusive and inflammatory rhetoric, the lines set in our public discourse have an impact: whether it’s Nigel Farage saying that the “Jewish lobby” has disproportionate power in the US, or high-profile people on the left saying that the antisemitism crisis within the Labour Party is an invented “smear.” I imagine that my experiences of growing up as a Jew in the UK will be similar to many people’s: struggling to work out what it means to me, expressing it through different ways at various stages of my life, but always being fiercely proud of my heritage. I am also in no doubt that my experiences of antisemitism will resonate with those of other Jews in this country. There was the time a Jewish friend of mine was beaten up in Primary School and had pennies thrown at him. There was the boy in Secondary school who said to me: “You know I would like you and your cousin if you weren’t Jewish.” At university, a stranger repeatedly shouted “Yid” in my face—despite my trying to explain how offensive it was. Another stranger said to me, “you must be Jewish,” after I told him I was next on the Squash court that he was playing on. Perhaps worse was one of my flatmates who drunkenly berated me for having lived in Israel prior to University, screaming at me that I was responsible for the death of Palestinian children. Despite the frequency and nature of the above incidents, I have never yet felt in any physical danger. Perhaps that’s my naive complacency in action again. After what has happened this week, that veneer of safety has gone. That in 2018 a synagogue in the US has become the site of a massacre is truly chilling. An event such as this shows that the acts of barbarism carried out by the Nazis are not confined to a bygone era. And the reality is that something similar to events in Pittsburgh could happen here in the UK—as attacks have happened in Belgium, France, Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. And so next Yom Kippur, as I’m taking the lock off and on, I won’t see it as laborious, and I won’t for one minute forget that our beautiful synagogue could be turned into a site of horror in a matter of seconds. May the memory of those who have died be a blessing, and may this incident serve as a stark reminder to us all that the world’s oldest hatred is very much alive.