Last Saturday was gut-wrenching for us as Jews. I held my breath as we watched the harrowing events of Rabbi Charlie Cyton-Walker and three congregants in a Reform synagogue held hostage at gunpoint. Rabbi Charlie is a brave hero. He demonstrated the courage to live by Judaism’s highest values; Welcoming the Stranger and Self-Defense.
We are taught Hachnasat Orchim, “Welcome the Stanger,” as it says in this week’s Torah portion “for you were strangers in a strange land.” Rabbi Charlie, trained in synagogue security, looked the stranger in the eyes and observed “This guy didn’t exhibit nervousness, looking in all different directions. He looked me in the eye. … I didn’t see any of the things that indicated falseness in that initial encounter. He asked if this was a shelter. I made him a cup of tea and we talked.”
The man was invited to join for prayers. During the service, when the Rabbi turned to face Jerusalem for the Barchu, he heard “a click.” The Rabbi turned around as the gunman pulled out his weapon and revealed on live-stream his motives to free a convicted Al-Qaeda terrorist from a nearby prison. Unexpectedly, the gunman was also recorded on live-stream telling the police about Rabbi Charlie. “I like him. I feel bad. He made me tea. We bonded.”
Law enforcement praised the Rabbi who used his clergy training to “be an unanxious presence” keeping the assailant calm. During the eleven-hour ordeal the terrorist grew increasingly agitated and belligerent. Eventually, the terrorist commanded the hostages to kneel in preparation to execute them. This is when the Rabbi suddenly threw a chair at the terrorist who was then holding his gun in an awkward position because the rabbi had just given him a cup of juice. The Rabbi threw the chair knocking the terrorist off balance as the hostages ran out the door miraculously before a shot could be fired. Rabbi Charlie’s quick actions of Haganah, Self-Defense saved their lives.
The Jewish word Hagana (Self Defense) comes from the symbol of the Jewish People, the Star of David, the Magen David. Menachem Begin (Holocaust Survivor and former Prime Minister of Israel) taught the “Magen David,” the “Shield of King David” is formed from two triangles held in balance. One points up in the direction of our heavenly Jewish values, and the other points down in recognition of our earthly reality.
Rabbi Charlie is a hero because, like the Star of David, he found the balance between keeping our Jewish values like “Welcoming the Stranger” while practicing the real-world need for “Hagana, Self-Defense.”
It is important for me as your Rabbi to also share that during the ordeal, I was emailed a message from the leader of the Islamic Society of Upper Westchester. Dr. Samsiah Abdul-Majid was one of our guest speakers at our Thanksgiving Interfaith Service. She wrote, “A much needed Salam, Shalom Peace Friends, A heartache yet again. My prayers for the safety of the Rabbi, the Jewish community, everyone involved, and all of us. May we continue relationship-building and deepening friendship because of, and despite our fractured selves and the world. May there be ease. Wa salam, In peace, Samsiah Abdul-Majid.
Yesterday on NPR Rabbi Charlie said these inspiring words, “We can’t live in fear. I will give a stranger tea again.”
Let’s stand proud as Jews; practicing our highest ethical values balanced with Self-Defense. I want to thank those who watch over us and our security. Steve Adler and Carey Hollander, Our CSS leaders have arranged training for us this Tuesday at 7:30pm via Zoom. I urge you all to attend. It is a Mitzvah.
Tonight, please join us for Friday night services via Zoom at 7:30pm. We will be joined by Scott Richmond, NY Director of the ADL, which was praised by Rabbi Charlie for training him on how to defend ourselves from Anti-Semitism. There will be a Q&A zoom conversation after the service for us to process our feelings, thoughts and lessons learned from the past week.
Shabbat Shalom, may it be a Sabbath of Peace and Hope,
Rabbi David Wilfond