Jewish with the Drawbridge Pulled Up

Ever since my synagogue was one of the targets of the Yemeni mail bomb plot last year, I’ve considered the balance between the need for security at Jewish institutions and the need to remain open to the wider world. Judaism admonishes Jews to welcome the stranger, to love your neighbor as yourself, and to help repair the world (the concept of tikkun olam.) The higher the security fence gets between your community and the outside world, the harder it becomes to accomplish any of those things. (Non-Lubavitcher ultra-Orthodox communities who choose to wall themselves off from the rest of the world as a misguided tenet of faith notwithstanding.)

Ever since the bomb plot, persistent front-door security and on-site Shabbat security and spot patrols from the Chicago Police Department have become commonplace at my shul. After we say hello, in a friendly manner we may ask who you are and why you’ve come. We don’t, however, ask anyone for I.D. (unless it’s the High Holy Days and you’ve lost your tickets!), and we don’t turn anyone away.

I wish that were the norm. A couple of months ago, I made a special after-work visit to the shop at the Spertus Institute, downtown Chicago’s interdenominational Jewish educational institution. I’ve made the trip many times before. This time, however, as I entered the building a very gruff security guard stopped me, asked where I was going, and asked for I.D.

No. Not to enter a shop, Jewish or otherwise. Not ever. I didn’t show I.D., headed for the bookshop, and complained to Spertus’s building manager. I was told I.D. was being asked for a special event that evening. Again, seriously. No. How many people would walk right out again if asked for I.D to go shopping?

I was wearing a kippah, too, which made being asked for I.D. in a Jewish institution seem ludicrous. At what point to we simply stop trusting each other–as Jews and as humans–and pull the drawbridge up for good? The incident left an awful taste in my mouth, and I haven’t been back to the Spertus since then. (Of course, Ryan having a car and the always-welcoming Hamakor Gallery a half-hour’s drive away in Skokie also speaks in part to my absence at Spertus.)

I know all the fear-based arguments for Jews to be eternally wary about outsiders. I know that in-your-face security is the norm in Israel (and, not for nothing, in a lot of my highly Jewish New York City hometown.) And, disturbingly, I know the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) promulgates some hard-core security suggestions of its own.

But I also know that security for its own sake is a slippery slope. And I know how we are commanded to be in this world as Jews. And how we are commanded to be must take precedence. Otherwise, why are we Jews?

The uncomfortable dance between security and living publicly as Jews arose for me again last night, in the wake of the collapse of the JewsByChoice.org online community of Jewish converts. That once-burgeoning site disappeared suddenly and with no explanation. Many former members of the site have gravitated to a former URJ (now independent) forum called GereiTzedek, focusing on Jewish converts. I’d love to know what the latter site is like.

Unfortunately, because the site was trolled by anti-semitic individuals earlier this year, it’s now a private board. Online community professionals might suggest that a board suffering such issues do a better job of moderating discussion. In fact, I would tell that to a client suffering a similar issue–this sort of thing arises a lot in online forums. Instead, the site’s managers simply pulled up the drawbridge and eliminated any possibility for the outside world to read the discussions.

I would note, these are discussion about coming to Judaism, what it’s like to go from being a non-Jew to a Jew–a process fraught with not a little anxiety when you’re at the beginning of it. These are exactly the types of Jewish discussions that should be public. These are exactly the types of Jewish discussion that should never be hidden away out of fear. Why make it harder to people thinking about coming to Judaism to walk in the front door?

Last night I signed up for a GereiTzedek account. This morning, on second thought, I asked for my account to be canceled. If I’m going to wear my kippah 24/7, blog publicly about my Jewish journey, and for all intents and purposes be an out, about, and proud Jewish man, I cannot in good conscience take part in a discussion board that hides its Jewishness away out of fear.

In my morning prayers, I celebrate and express gratitude for being a Jew, and I thank God for creating the soul of every living being. But I have yet to come across the part of the prayerbook that commands us to live in fear of our Jewishness and of the other people with whom we share this planet. I fail to see how tikkun olam happens if we’re too afraid to live in the wider world to begin with.

And I own too many kippot not to wear them outside.

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