Sanctuary Shattered


Last week, The Community Synagogue gathered, as did many other congregations, for National Refugee Shabbat. The weekend’s sponsor was HIAS, a historically Jewish organization that today is one of the nine agencies with which the federal government contracts for refugee resettlement in the U.S.

At our Friday evening Shabbat service, we wove the liturgy between songs evoking the themes of welcoming the stranger and of being welcomed as the stranger. One of the most powerful was “Sanctuary,” written by Julie Silver:

When one of us is suffering
We all feel pain
When one of us is stumbling
We fall again and again
All of us are slaves
Until all of us are free
Everyone needs sanctuary

When some of us go hungry
All of us can’t eat
When words don’t mean enough to us we pray with our feet
We pray for the dreamers who pray for you and me
We can be their sanctuary

So let us set a table
Wide and long
Where everyone has plenty
And everyone belongs
Where everyone agrees to disagree
Underneath this canopy

I will be a shelter
Open on all sides
I will take you in
And stand by your side
No matter where you come from
Or where you’d rather be
I will be your sanctuary

Where everyone agrees to disagree
Underneath this canopy

So stand up and sing
Let your voices ring
Bring what you can bring
And be a sanctuary

What a universal longing: to have a place where we feel safe, where we feel like we belong. And what a powerful message: to be, not merely build, a sanctuary. It’s not just about a set of actions to take, but about a way of living in which we ourselves embody that which we wish to see in the world. Each of us can be a comforting presence for the refugee, the stranger, the other. Everyone needs sanctuary.

And then a sanctuary was shattered.

On the very next Shabbat after the one organized by HIAS, a gunman motivated by anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant feeling sprayed bullets into the bodies of Jews gathered to pray and of the police officers who rushed to protect them. As of this writing, 11 people have died.

I’m struck by a terrible sense of irony. The shooter specifically cited HIAS, whose stated purpose is to welcome the stranger and protect the refugee, as the source of his anger. His fear of the stranger led him to murder still other strangers. Where is our sanctuary now? He has desecrated it with blood.

My heart breaks for the Tree of Life synagogue members, for the families of those dead and injured, and for the victims themselves. My heart breaks for the Jewish people. And my heart breaks for the American people.

I want to cry out in anger. How long must we endure violent rhetoric and complacency and equivocality from our leaders in the face of hate? How long must we abide an unwillingness to curtail the availability of the weapons with which hate kills? How long must we wait until delegitimization of others gives way to respect and compassion?

Questions abound, and the ground feels shaky. The rational part of me knows that another incident of this kind is highly improbable; when we take into account all the times and all the places in which Jews gather these days, such things statistically never happen. But all it takes is one to flip the fear switch, and suddenly I am afraid to go to work. As the Mishnah says, “Whoever destroys a single life, it is as if they have destroyed the entire world” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Eleven lives were ended and countless more destroyed, and the world is out of whack.

And still I find sources of hope, supports to help me regain my footing. I’ve just come from a communal solidarity and comfort service hosted by the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, where the building was packed with people and clergy of many faiths and congregations. My email is flooded with announcements of similar gatherings around the area in the coming days, and as I scroll through Facebook, I see pictures and videos of people praying and hugging and singing around the country.

When one of us is suffering, we all feel pain. We are each other’s sanctuary.

We remember:

Joyce Feinberg
Richard Gottfried
Rose Mallinger
Jerry Rabinowitz
Cecil Rosenthal
David Rosenthal
Bernice Simon
Sylvan Simon
Daniel Stein
Melvin Wax
Irving Younger

May their memory be a blessing, and may their families be comforted among all the mourners today.

This is a moment to recognize all the more how important it is to welcome the stranger. That’s how we affirm one another’s humanity––and our own. I hope you’ll consider joining me in donating to HIAS in memory of those who died.

So stand up and sing
Let your voices ring
Bring what you can bring
And be a sanctuary


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