Open season on synagogues

Open season on synagogues

With all the attacks on synagogues both foreign and domestic this past week, one can’t help but wonder if there’s some cosmic bounty on Jewish houses of worship:
• A Reform synagogue in Ra’anana, Israel, was vandalized, Thursday, April 14 — the third time the house of worship has been desecrated — prompting a letter of condemnation signed by 14 Orthodox rabbis. Officials suspect religious zealots in the attack.
• A Potomac, Md., Conservative synagogue and two nearby Jewish-owned businesses had their windows shot out with a BB gun, Monday, April 18. So far, police have not called the attack a hate crime.
• A 19th century Greek synagogue on the island of Corfu was the target of an arson attack, also Monday, April 18. Two suspects were arrested for starting the fire, in which Torah scrolls, books and documents were reportedly piled in front of the bima and set ablaze. According to the Jerusalem Post, some of the texts were hundreds of years old.
We still can’t say for sure what the motives were behind these attacks, but they all have a common time element, coming close to, or on the very eve of, Passover.
That is disturbing. At a time when Jews celebrate the sweetness of freedom, a cadre of criminals would enslave us to our fears.
Worse yet, linked to these attacks is a bitter irony.
Here, in the 21st century, many Jews concern themselves with how to draw their co-religionists back to the synagogue, how to make the venerable shul attractive to a new generation. Regular synagogue goers need only look around their sanctuaries on Sabbaths, festivals, even the High Holy Days, to see that fewer and fewer seats are filled, and those that do fill them are increasingly older worshipers.
But to a small but violent group of people, the synagogue is very attractive, indeed — as a target. It is a means by which some can express their hatred for Jews and what we stand for.
Increasingly, the synagogue of today is either a place Jews choose to ignore, or a target that radicals can’t wait to attack.
Of course, the status of the synagogue isn’t that simple. Keep in mind the suspected attackers of the Ra’anana synagogue may be ultra-Orthodox Jews themselves, who likely feel threatened by the growth of Reform and Masorti (Conservative) Judaism in Israel.
Nevertheless, we believe this ironic trend does exist. When Israel withdrew for the Gaza Strip in 2005, some of the favorite targets of the Palestinians who then rampaged through the former settlements were the buildings that, only days earlier, served as synagogues.
But in this country we talk of ways to bring Judaism outside the synagogue to “where the Jews are,” since they’re not coming to us. That’s a good idea, of course, but if taken to its logical conclusion, it lessens the role of the synagogue in the Judaism of the future.
These attacks are more than just destructive acts by deranged individuals, they are wake-up calls to reconsider the role of a physical place of worship in Jewish life. What is a synagogue in the 21st century? And how should we express respect for the synagogue of today?