June 24, 1999
I'm sure that most of you have heard about how three synagogues in my hometown of Sacramento were firebombed early Friday morning. And perhaps you have heard about the pain that so many Jews around the country are feeling. And, of course, these feelings run even deeper among those of us who are members of one of the temples.
I have belonged to Congregation B'nai Israel, one of the torched synagogues, for the past 17 years. Celebrating our 150th anniversary, we are the oldest congregation west of the Mississippi River.
All weekend, members of our temple (900 families strong) phoned each other, seeking news about how bad it really was, etc., since we were not allowed anywhere near the site.
We talked about how this could happen in America? What have we done? Why do they (still) hate us so much? Aren't we good members of the community?
We volunteer for local services and donate funds to good civic causes. All we ask is to be allowed to worship the way we wish and to be allowed to keep our culture alive in our own homes and temples. We don't seek converts. It is not a "we're better than you are," or "God loves us more than you." All we ask is that we be allowed to live in peace, brotherhood and safety within the dominant Christian community. We don't want to bother or threaten the dominant community. Just allow us "to be." Is that so hard?
We heard via our phone tree, as well as the local media, that our weekly Friday Shabbat service would be held in the 2,000-seat Community Theatre.
Since I'm not religious and don't often go to Friday-night services, I thought simply to pass. But then I thought that someone should be there to "stand up" to the terrorists. I figured that I would lend my presence to the 150 or 250 people who might show up; if nothing else, we would fill a few rows in the huge theater, which has two balconies.
Then I arrived.
Eighteen hundred people from all over our community -- Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, Hare Krishna's, and members from every sect of the Protestant community -- were there. There were members from black churches, gay churches, Asian churches, as well as atheists, agnostics and some of the followers of New Age spiritual leaders. There were ministers, bishops, city council members, the police chief, the FBI, ATF, and representatives from the state legislature and governor's office. Never have I seen such an outpouring of grief and concern from the community...for Jews.
Our Friday-night service is a "Celebration of the Sabbath," when workday thoughts are put aside and the hearts of the parents turn toward the children, and the hearts of the children turn to the parents. We sing, clap hands, say prayers, listen to the rabbi and cantor banter with each other, and, of course, hear a sermon, often filled with humor. It is a happy service...and usually short.
But who could be happy? Our house of worship had been torched. Our entire library of 5,000 books was gone. Yet our rabbi told us that we must persevere and that to not celebrate the Sabbath would be exactly what the terrorists would hope to achieve. And so we went on with our service.
There were a number of speakers from our congregation and the community. All were inspirational and devoid of the kind of sorrow, sadness, grief or anger that you might expect.
Our previous rabbi, now retired, who served us for 22 years, flew in from Phoenix and reminded us that "we are the Jewish people and that we have always survived and we will survive this as well." And we were putting on a brave front. We laughed, we sang, we applauded, we said the ancient prayers. We held up the best we could.
Then something I will never forget happened.
Seated on the stage (our stand-in bimah) were a number of our temple's officers, as well as some of the "dignitaries" from the city. There was also an attractive blonde woman whom no one seemed to recognize. I heard the "buzz" around me: "Who is that woman, and why is she there?" Then our rabbi stepped forward and said he wanted to introduce us to the Rev. Faith Whitmore. The blonde rose and went to the podium. I'm not sure if she is the local or regional head of the United Methodist Church, but she spoke briefly at first about how appalled she and her brethren were over the arson bombings. She then reached into her suit coat and took out a piece of paper.
"I want you to know that this afternoon we took a special offering of our members to help you rebuild your temple, and we want you to have this check for $6,000," she told us. For two seconds, there was absolute dead quiet. We were astounded. Slowly, then building, the hall shook with applause. I've never heard applause like that before. It went on for two minutes. And then people broke into tears. Me, included.
As the Rev. Whitmore gave the check to the rabbi and hugged him, it was one of the most emotional moments I've ever been witness to. Our congregation, some 1,100 of us, stood with tears in our eyes. The evening closed with a final hymn, and we all went home feeling a bit better.
The other reality did not hit me until the following afternoon, when I saw the charred remains of the library wing. The place was swarming with ATF, FBI and other agents, who were collecting materials for the investigations. One ATF agent said that this is being classified as an "act of domestic terrorism" and has been given the highest priority. When you see the destruction of something that was "yours," something you helped build, and something you were proud of, it hits you. The depression is overwhelming.
Why here? Why us? Why me? I'm sure there are answers, but I don't have them at the moment. The only answer I do have is that we must pick ourselves up as a congregation and community and move on. They can't beat us. We are the Jewish people. We were here 5,000 years ago, and we will be here 5,000 years from today.
I'm going to end by doing something that may upset some of you. I'm going to call in whatever markers I might have. We lost our entire 5,000-volume library. I saw it. It was soot. Not even a page remained. Nothing.
It was a wonderful library of Jewish-oriented books and films. It was a treasure of our congregation, and it was used by hundreds of our members, especially the young people. In our community, mothers took their children to the temple library as much as they took their children to the public library. It was part of "what we do." Our books and videos were one of the ways we "socialized" our young people into our culture. And it works. We expect a lot from them, and we make sure that they have the tools and opportunities not to disappoint us.
If you could find it in your heart to send a check for a dollar or two ($5, $10, or whatever is in your heart) for our library fund, it would be a mitzvah. I told our rabbi that I would ask every publisher in America for a small contribution.
If this is something you could do, please make out a check to Congregation B'nai Israel and send it to Alan N. Canton at Adams-Blake Publishing, 8041 Sierra St., Fair Oaks, CA 95628. I will see that it gets to the right people.
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