Divrei Tikvah

From Rabbi Johanna Hershenson

A new article from the Rabbi will resume next month.  She was ill with the flu and unable to provide one for this month. The following is her article from February.

Dear TBT Friends, We need to talk. Really talk. I don’t know about you, but I am finding that several of my core values have come into conflict since the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.

An incident that occurred just this past Friday evening at our Shabbat Tish perfectly illustrates my mixed feelings. First of all, what a lovely evening we had! Children singing and laughing and playing. Adults meeting and mingling and getting to know each other in an informal and inviting venue. Shabbat candles and wine and challah … brisket …

Some time into our meal, the doorbell on Heritage Hall rings. A member greets a couple who asks to speak with the clergy member present. I come to the door. The young, disheveled man says he occasionally comes to the church to charge his phone, clean himself up in the restroom, and catch his breath. He has a relationship with the pastor. I explain that there are no church events happening, that we are a synagogue using space. I ask the young man and his female companion if they are hungry. He is not. She is. I invite them to fill a plate, eat, and be on their way. They are hesitant and ask for more assurance. A committee chair who also is a member of our ad hoc working group on security meets the couple at the door and escorts them in. The man goes into the hallway to plug his phone into an outlet. His female companion is shy and clearly hungry. She gets a plate of food and is escorted to two empty seats at a table of TBT members. The young man joins her. He pulls out a cross on a necklace from beneath his layers of sweaters. A couple members notice and feel some anxiety that passes.

At this point, for our members sitting at that table, a friendly evening getting to know other TBT members evolved into the practice of the mitzvot of welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry. While these mitzvot are absolutely important to us and foundational values for our social action goals, it was Shabbat and the Tish was an informal, friendly ritual celebration with comfortable company. Our goal was to nourish ourselves and our relationships inside our TBT family. The introduction of unplanned guests changed the energy of our gathering, at least for the individuals seated at the table. For this, I feel very sorry. I did not keep my desire to welcome the stranger and feed the hungry in check with my desire to facilitate safety, warmth, and intimacy among our members with one another.

But wait, there’s more …
Another member who happens to be a law enforcement professional notices the young man’s anxious behaviors and engages him in conversation. The young man resists being questioned and asks if the member is a cop. The member states his work with law enforcement. The young man’s demeanor shifts. He does not want any trouble and he confesses a series of felonies including armed robbery and that he is awaiting trial for a current armed robbery indictment. Once the female companion finishes her meal, the young man collects his phone and they leave the church building.

Not only have the Jewish values of welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry compromised the comfort and intimacy of a gathering inviting our members to let down their guard and share a little of themselves with one another, our practice of these values has now compromised our safety. The young man appears to have been unarmed and appears to have had the intentions he stated: to charge his phone, give his companion something to eat, and catch his breath. But what if that was not the case? What if our member with law enforcement expertise and experience was not there or chose not to step forward and engage himself? What if we had security at the event and that security professional was the first one injured or killed if an unexpected individual presented with the intention to harm us?

Since the murderous rampage in Pittsburgh, we at Temple Beth Tikvah have convened a working group to develop security policy, training, and procedures. The initial work of the group was shouldered by our co-president, Sheila Luber, and parent liaison, Kerrie Zurovsky. They responded to parents’ calls for having security in place for Sunday school mornings. Dan Fishkin has agreed to chair the working group. Dan has engaged in trainings and volunteered a great deal of time in Search and Rescue and other emergency preparedness programs under the auspices of state and county emergency responders. Other members on the committee include Alex Charney Cohen who brings experience from the National Guard in emergency preparedness, Adam Heyman who is a retired law enforcement officer from Albuquerque and currently an investigator for the Deschutes County District Attorney’s office, and Kory Friedman who operates a private alarm and security firm.

The working group has spent the past two months researching, inquiring with local law enforcement, and preparing assessments of the two venues in which we spend our time: First Presbyterian and Shalom Bayit (Sunday and Hebrew school). They are planning to present recommendations to TBT’s board at the February meeting and upon acceptance of those recommendations implement education for the congregation and training for a cadre of volunteers willing to assume leadership roles in security practices.

Some members in our congregation will feel like we are not doing enough and other members will feel like we are too reactive. Most of us will likely fall in the gray areas in between. I invite us all to observe our core values as we take responsibility for keeping ourselves safe and welcoming, inclusive and attuned to our own needs as a spiritually expressive community. What values come into conflict? What are the criteria for setting boundaries that keep the peace and safety we deserve when we come to Temple events? I imagine this discussion will continue in different venues and forms as we begin learning together and taking the steps we need to take as responsible citizens and hosts.

Your thoughts matter. As opportunities emerge for education and volunteering, I hope many of us step forward. I do believe that participating in our efforts to provide a secure environment for our congregation will also strengthen our confidence and sense of personal safety in the world. I believe those who feel more secure are more likely to be generous in welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry. Work in one set of core values leads to a more empowered practice of other core values. This is, for us, a moment of growth and maturation.

~~ Rabbi Hershenson’s office hours are by appointment. If you would like to set up an appointment, please contact her by email at: johannahershenson@gmail.com, or by phone at 541-213-9880.