THE TEMPLES ARE BURNING

THE TEMPLES ARE BURNING

From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

The Temples Are Burning

Always come to the aid of those who are being oppressed.

Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav

In June 1999, I was vacationing on a quiet little island in Croatia with a former college roommate. It was the first vacation I had taken since my ordination and appointment as assistant rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento.

For Shabbat, my Catholic friend and I did candles, kiddush and motzi over dinner, and we were going to spend the rest of Shabbat sitting on the beach. (There are very few synagogues in Croatia.)

At midnight, I decided to call a congregant of mine in California, where it was three o’clock in the afternoon. She was ill, and I wanted to check on her welfare. But the conversation we had that night was not what I had been expecting.

“The temple’s been firebombed,” she said.

“What?”

“Ours and two others—Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel. I don’t know any more yet. It happened in the middle of the night. My husband’s at the congregation now trying to find out more.”

Shock hit me like a tidal wave. Three synagogues firebombed? In America? I couldn’t believe it!

Early the following morning, I learned that the attacks had not been by firebombs, but by arson. The first fire had been set at about 3:00 A.M. at Congregation B’nai Israel in Land Park. This was followed within forty-five minutes by fires set at Congregation Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel Torah Center.

In addition to the damage to the temples, the seven-thousand-volume library at B’nai Israel had been utterly destroyed. Many of the books were rare and irreplaceable.

I was devastated, even more so when I was told that my own office had been burned down. I had a small collection of prayerbooks from pre–World War II Germany and Hungary, some of which were given to me by a former landlord who was a Holocaust survivor. I also had my grandparents’ Judaica library in my office. I was horrified that books given to me to protect had been destroyed in a hate crime.

It was horrible to hear all this news when I was sitting on an island in the middle of the Adriatic, so far from home. I felt lonely and desolate, and I could hardly imagine what everyone at home was experiencing. I made immediate plans to return. During the long, lonely journey from Europe I learned more—that the damage to all three synagogues was estimated at around two and a half million dollars, with two million of that damage having been done to B’nai Israel alone. I also learned that while the FBI was investigating, at that time there were still no suspects.

There was one moment of elation: I learned that my office had not in fact been burned down, although it had suffered severe smoke damage. Another piece of news that cheered me was that in spite of the devastation, not a single Torah in any of the three temples was destroyed. The Aron Hakodesh, the Ark of the Covenant, the chest that holds the scrolls, had held firm.

Three days later I arrived home, exhausted, in Sacramento. It felt good to be back with my own community in this time of heartbreak and outrage. I knew I would be doing much comforting in the days that lay ahead.

I arrived only half an hour before a community service was due to begin. I’d just gone twenty-eight hours without sleep, but nothing would stop me from attending.

I entered the Sacramento Community Theatre having no idea what to expect. When I walked out onto the stage, what I saw took my breath away. Over 200 people sat on the stage. It was like a Who’s Who of Sacramento and beyond: there were state officials and legislators, city council members, the chief of police, representatives from the ATF and the fire department, people from the governor’s office, and clergy from every faith and ethnic background in the entire Sacramento community.

Then the curtain opened, and I was even more astonished. The theatre was packed! About 4,500 people were in attendance, including those who crowded into overflow rooms, where they watched on a big screen.

In the crowd were Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and African Americans; Muslims, Catholics and Protestants from many different denominations; Buddhists and more, as well as people who might have called themselves nonbelievers, but who believed that victims of cowardly attacks in the night should not suffer in isolation.

It was the most inspiring program I have ever experienced. The outpouring of love and support was overwhelming. Speaker after speaker rose to express their concern, their sorrow and their hope. Each was met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Everyone in that theater that night was standing shoulder to shoulder with the Jews of Sacramento, and saying, each in his or her own way, “You are not alone.”

That night when I came home, I saw signs in my neighbors’ windows that said, “United We Stand.” That gesture touched me deeply. As I thanked each of them, I found out that up to then they hadn’t even known I was a rabbi. It was a small sign of how the community was coming together in new, positive ways as a result of the tragedy.

When I was finally able to get into my office, I broke down and cried for the first time. The smell was suffocating. Everything was covered with a thick layer of smoke and ash.

But I was deeply moved that people drove in from as far away as Tahoe, the San Francisco Bay Area and Bakersfield to deliver donations and books and to express sympathy.

Although the work has been endless, our congregation and community are optimistic. Money and offers of help have poured in from all across the country. When the Secretary of Housing, Andrew Cuomo, came to visit, he urged us to rebuild bigger and better. And that is what we intend to do. We will not hide. We will continue to teach, to worship and celebrate our Jewish heritage. It was because of these great waves of support that I and my congregants soon came to see the frightening attacks as an isolated event and not reflective of the larger community. Whoever had perpetrated them had zero support in the community. And the attacks weren’t like so much of the anti-Semitism of the past. Following this incident, the U.S. government was quick to help. Congress unanimously passed a resolution condemning the attacks; the government promised low-interest loans, and money was promised for programs in Sacramento that would build understanding between different faiths and ethnic groups.

It may sound corny, but because of what happened, I feel proud to live in America. I am deeply grateful for the astonishing outpouring of support from non-Jews. It is overwhelming to me that so many would care, and so deeply. I am grateful also to be a rabbi. You get to see the best in people—my congregation, and the entire Sacramento community, has been so wonderful, jumping in to rebuild and do whatever else they can.

In quiet moments now, I reflect that although people who are filled with hatred may burn down temples and libraries, the human heart, in its capacity to love and to reach out to others in distress, will always endure. As I was taught as a child, love is a more powerful weapon than hate.

Rabbi Mona Alfi
As told to Bryan Aubrey

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