Tikkun Olam in a Targeted Synagogue

My synagogue was one of the Yemeni mail-bomb terror targets. It is impossible to write a sentence like that without feeling the worst of humanity well up inside your being. But sometimes it’s when you feel the most hateful of urges that healing the world has the best chance to begin.

When the weekend started, I thought the emotional highlight for me would be giving my first lead at my longtime codependence recovery group. I didn’t expect the amazing feeling of sharing the story of the love and healing I’ve found in my life this year (which I’ve already shared here) would be topped an hour later.

I was happy to make it from my recovery group to Friday evening Shabbat services on time. We were having our own lead, of sorts, as well, so we had a fairly good turnout to hear it. Then shortly before services began, Rabbi Zedek informed us that our synagogue was one of the Yemeni mail-bomb terror targets.

As he went on to tell world media Saturday morning when an international group of reporters attended our Hebrew Torah study group (those are words you just can’t make up), a high-profile Jewish and secular leader wishing to remain anonymous phoned him on Friday afternoon to say, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that Emanuel Congregation wasn’t one of the targets. The bad news is that Or Chadash was.”

Or Chadash is the LGBT congregation that shares Emanuel’s building, along with the Chicago Jewish Day School. One mail room. One building. Our collective spiritual home. All of us. Ouch.

Rabbi Zedek reminded us that situations like this are normal in the rest of the world. But he admonished us to remember that though that sad definition of normalcy has now fallen upon our community, it’s important not to let it change who we are–and perhaps more importantly, how we are.

How we were Friday evening was shocked. In our rabbi’s words, heartbroken. There was unspoken anger, too (some of which indeed got spoken on Saturday morning.) And yet, there was something else, too. There were Kabbalat Shabbat songs sung with unusual verve and unison. There was palpably heartfelt recitation of the core prayers of our tradition. There was rapt attention given to our speaker, Rabbi Douglas Kohn, as he discussed editing the first-ever book about how to live with cancer from a faith-based perspective (Life, Faith, Cancer.) There was a hearty round of Gut Shabboses and Shabbat Shaloms as we all retreated to the coffee and cake of the oneg.

There was love is what there was. Of community. Of each other. A big, fat, Jewish Whoville of sorts, facing off with yet another hateful, hurtful Grinch, and deciding to respond in song to Adonai and celebration with one another. Martin Buber might call that ‘active love,’ the decision to realize something higher, activate something better inside of yourself in response to a life whose circumstances might otherwise conspire to prompt you to sleepwalk–or rage–through your journey.

One of Judaism’s most beloved ancient sages, Hillel, phrased it as a question. “If I am not for myself then who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, than what am I?” Hillel might be proud. This weekend, a synagogue full or people in Edgewater decided exactly what they were: a community. Of Jews, no less.

Funny thing about Judaism, one its most abiding tenets is little known beyond the faith. Tikkun Olam. The eternal admonition to repair the world. Because it’s broken, and this weekend’s events were good evidence of that. Repair the world for all of us, with all of us, together. Not all of us Jews, but all of us humans. Because we’re all in this living-on-planet-Earth business together. And because, together, we deserve nothing less.

Often Tikkun Olam involves fighting for the rights of the oppressed, raising environmental consciousness, or otherwise practicing acts of charity and kindness. Sometimes, though, its spirit is expressed in a simple decision. What do I do next? Which way forward? In the immediacy of crisis, do I let rage the dark forces of anger at those who most certainly deserve our anger? (For Judaism decidedly does not teach us to love our enemies.) Or do I make a deliberate choice to harness more healing forces? And aim those forces of light at others in my community also in danger of slipping into unrequitable anger.

Having been among the exodus of New Yorkers walking across bridges out of Manhattan on 9/11, I’m not usually phased by news of things like individual mail bombs. Yet after services and the overall media frenzy at synagogue Saturday morning, I went in the bathroom and cried. And I’m not even a Jew yet. But there was a great blessing for me in that personal expression of heartbreak. As I continue my conversion journey to join the Jewish people, thousands of pages of reading, hours of study to learn prayers in an unfamiliar language, and maxing out my Android phone with Jewish day-camp songs will eventually a Jew make on the outside.

But now I know where I stand on the inside. I have a Yemeni terrorist to thank for helping me recognize all the love I feel for this journey, this synagogue, this congregation. My congregation. My spiritual home. My Jewish journey continues to take me places inside of myself I never knew were there. There are also places towards which I suspect this journey is leading me (in the greatest spirit of Lech L’cha) that it is too soon to share. But I can see them coming. I am better, and very grateful, for the unexpected doorways of love and compassion…and faith…that this journey has privileged me to discover.

May Adonai allow those doors to remain forever open as wide as the hearts and minds of a modest little congregation on the shores of Lake Michigan that decided to keep on repairing the world on Friday night.

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