The chapel of the Little Brown Church in California’s San Fernando Valley has been open continuously, 24/7, rain or shine, for over 75 years for those in need of spiritual sustenance, to meditate, or who simply want a moment or two of peace.
The portals of the Islamic Center of New Port Richey, Florida are likewise never shut to anyone who wishes to enter and be helped.
And thus it is around the world. The spirit has no lock and key. The needs of the human soul are not restricted to certain hours of the day. So, houses of worship and those who work within them are obliged to extend a hand to whoever asks for aid and comfort, no matter who and no matter when.
And so it was that on the Sabbath morning of January 15, 2022, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, did the expected thing. He opened the synagogue door to a man seeking shelter. He let the man in, spoke to him, and gave him tea. And though the incident happened six months ago, and though it had happened hundreds of times before—a lone person seeking food and comfort in a holy place—this time was different. This time would be remembered by Rabbi Cytron-Walker for the rest of his days, for shortly thereafter, during Sabbath prayers, the man pulled out a pistol, screamed threats and epithets, and took hostages, including the rabbi.
Most antisemites and other bigots confine their venom to the thinking or talking stage and resist taking it out on living, breathing human beings.
How do these things begin? They begin simply enough, with someone saying something or someone reading something. Something hateful and false. The rantings of the man during the ensuing hours of the crisis were not original to him. They are the well-worn laundry list of canards that antisemites have been using for centuries. His spewings were silenced when tactical officers of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team fatally shot him—but silenced only until the next violent hater comes along.
Most antisemites and other bigots confine their venom to the thinking or talking stage and resist taking it out on living, breathing human beings. But for every several dozen bigots, there are enough who are truly mad to create a dangerous environment for religions, dangerous enough for Rabbi Cytron-Walker to have previously trained in how to spot and diffuse just such a situation. Yet he opened the door. As a man of God, that is simply how he is wired.
As he testified before Congress, “I was running late, checking the sound system, and in the midst of trying to do a million things, I had a stranger come to the door. I have thought about that moment a great deal. I welcomed a terrorist into my congregation. I live with that responsibility.”
We all live with that responsibility, Rabbi. Whenever something hateful escapes our lips, someone is listening to it. Whenever we pass on a venom-laced social media post filled with half-truths and tropes, someone is reading it. Whenever we generalize, marginalize or hope to disenfranchise a person or group, someone is agreeing with it.
We must do better.
Our lives depend on it.