While I’m blessed to serve Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, a leafy town outside of Boston, my home will always be New York. If you make that trip, you most likely know the route I take along I-84 through Connecticut. Heading south, I know I’m getting near my destination when I see the sign for Route 6, going westbound, at Exit 10:
Every time I pass the sign, I experience an involuntary reaction in my gut. That poor town. I’m horrorstruck by the memory of what happened there in December of 2012, when 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary were slaughtered by a gunman who then took his own life. But immediately, like clockwork, I regret my reaction. I wish I didn’t feel that way. What could it be like to live in a town whose very name arouses such a reaction?
In the face of the unspeakable, some of the family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook started an organization called “Sandy Hook Promise,” whose stated goal is to “end school shootings and create a culture change that prevents violence.” In the face of grief and trauma, their resolve is an inspiration.
Sadly, the Sandy Hook survivors were confronted with another adversary besides grief and trauma. Gun rights advocates, concerned that Americans horrified by the mass murder of children would support gun control legislation, went on the offensive. Within the week, the NRA’s then-CEO Wayne LaPierre put out a statement claiming, among other things, gun-free school zones attract killers and that another gun ban would not protect Americans. He called on Congress to appropriate funds to hire armed police officers for every American school.
And then, coining a phrase that would become a watch-cry for the gun rights movement, LaPierre added, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
I thought of LaPierre’s statement, and of Sandy Hook Promise, in the aftermath of the hostage crisis that unfolded this past Shabbat at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. The first reports that emerged out of Colleyville indicated that an armed intruder had barged into the synagogue and taken four congregants hostage. But after the hostages were finally free, more details emerged. The situation was more complicated than first thought. And it wasn’t a “good guy with a gun” who had saved them.
The shooter was not an intruder; he knocked on a glass door of the synagogue and was let in by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who said he looked like he needed shelter. In keeping with Jewish teaching to honor the dignity of the needy, the rabbi made him some tea.
After the man produced a gun, and as his antisemitic motive became clear, audio streaming from the synagogue indicated that Cytron-Walker leaned on his skill as a rabbi, establishing a connection and building rapport with his captor. “As a part of rabbinic training,” Cytron-Walker told CBS News, “we talk a lot about the idea of being a calm, non-anxious presence,” something that rabbis do all the time in personal, pastoral moments. Despite the terror of the encounter, Cytron-Walker kept lines of communication open. “We listened to him, we answered his questions, we shared a little about ourselves,” said the rabbi.
As day turned to night, though, Cytron-Walker realized it was time to change tactics. The gunman had become more agitated; in the rabbi’s words, there was “a lot more yelling, a lot more threatening.” As they had been trained to do in drills conducted for just such an awful occasion, the hostages had slowly moved toward an exit over the course of the evening. Ultimately, the rabbi threw a chair at their captor, and all the hostages ran out the door.
In other words, it wasn’t armaments that saved the captors. Not guns, or guards, or even technological security systems. “We escaped,” wrote Jeffrey Cohen, one of the hostages, in a post on Facebook. “We weren’t released or freed.” In other words, what saved the hostages in Beth Israel was a calm, kind presence and smart thinking. You might say that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with love in his heart, patience and the ability to throw a chair when it counts.
The only bloodshed that happened in the Colleyville synagogue was carried out by the FBI. Agents stormed the building after the hostages had escaped, killing the captor, oddly, only after the captives were all safe.
Regardless, there are members of our Jewish community who still favor the use of force in confronting the challenge of hate and antisemitism. And when challenged with opposing voices expressing regret or even grief over the use of force within a synagogue’s walls, those same voices can become belligerent.
When, on Twitter, a rabbinic colleague expressed anguish over “the idea of a SWAT team ‘breaching the synagogue,’” pushback was swift. One commenter asked, “You’re the type that fetishizes dead Jews, aren’t you?” Added another, “Would you have preferred it if the terrorist slaughtered the Jews he was holding hostage?”
Put aside, if you can, the grotesque suggestion that a person dedicated to serving the Jewish people would welcome their murder: These outsized reactions ignore the reality that law enforcement did not, in fact, save the hostages. Even more troubling, however, they represent a fetishization of physical force over bedrock Jewish values, like the primacy Jewish texts place on the value of human life. In the name of protecting the Jewish people, perversely, those who seek solutions rooted in physical force have adopted the values of the larger society, a society plagued by chronic violence and bloodshed.
“Not by might and not by power,” the prophet Zachariah famously taught, speaking on behalf of God, “but by My Spirit.” The religion of the armament fanatic, whether in the NRA or in our synagogues, reverses the formulation, relying first on force. Generally, we call that abdication of Jewish values in favor of those of the dominant secular culture “assimilation.” It is no wonder that some rabbis, including myself, prohibit guns from the grounds of synagogues.
“I don’t want you to think of me as horrible, sad, broken,” Mark Barden, who lost his son in the Sandy Hook shooting and is co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, told an audience of the National Council of Jewish Women back in 2016. He could have been speaking on behalf of his town. Or of Pittsburgh or Poway or Colleyville, or of his country. Our country. “Take this tragedy and make it a transformation,” Barden said, “and look at me as a symbol of hope.”
The Jewish path is a path that promises transformation — and relies on hope. To abandon hope in that transformation, trusting instead in firepower, would be a tragedy of unfathomable proportion, larger even than the ones we’ve already endured.