Some teachings, such as, “Love your neighbor” or, “Care for your community,” are shared by almost every religious or ethical practice. This is logical evolutionary thinking: In the long term, the group will do better than the person.
It takes effort to be open to strangers and even to care for them. I was reminded recently that our brains aren’t wired for it. Strangers are by definition unknown. Fear is often triggered by the unknown. Strangers in this context can be dangerous.
Everyone should feel safe in their sacred space. But too many people, of many backgrounds, don’t always feel safe. My congregants, as well as I, know this well. We are all grateful to be alive.
Jan. 15 was the day that a gunman stormed our synagogue demanding the release of a woman held in a nearby federal prison. During the 10 hour hostage-taking by this terrorist, all of the anxiety and fear that many Jewish people deal with every day were realized. No one should live like this — not the congregants of the Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., not the members of Sikh temples nor mosques that have been vandalized, not our small synagogue in Texas, nor the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh or the Chabad synagogue of Poway, Calif.
We were only the latest, most dramatic victims of the attack at Beth Israel in Colleyville. Many Jews were nervous even before the Jan. 15, attack on my synagogue. In recent years, antisemitic attacks on Jews have increased. Hatred has already resulted in harassment and even bloodshed at too many houses of worship. These problems have been around for too long.
Part of the problem lies in our own strangerness. Jews are strangers. Muslims are strangers. People with a different religious tradition — or no religious tradition — are perceived as strangers. People of different ethnicities may be considered strangers. People who have different political views can be considered strangers. We’re strangers because one can look from afar and make judgments without understanding another’s reality. We’re strangers because it takes too much work to be curious, to give others the benefit of the doubt. It is a lot easier and a lot more comfortable to stick with one’s group. “Love your neighbor” is hard enough.
And that’s why I, and so many other religious leaders, have pointed out again and again the sacred obligation to love the stranger. The command to care for the stranger is mentioned at least 36 times in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible — more than any other mitzvah. It’s mentioned so often because we need the reminder, because it isn’t natural. It’s hard. It is difficult to get past the fear of the stranger.
I stress this teaching and try to live by this ethos even after living through a hostage situation — where every minute feels like it could be your last. I understand the temptation to find comfort in only those you know and trust. My congregants, and I, spent more than 10 hours in our sacred home with a gun pointed at them.
To add to my agony, when I opened the doors to my synagogue, I unknowingly welcomed the person who would later attack me as well as my fellow congregants. It will always be a heavy burden on my heart that I opened the doors. But, I am still committed to the idea that strangers are welcome and should be cared for.
I do not offer this teaching out of naïveté. All of us have a responsibility in understanding the context within which we live. Understanding does not mean we are prepared for any eventuality. We need to have security plans and preparedness in case of the worst. I’ve participated in, and helped organize, far too many vigils after acts of intentional hatred and violence; gathering after gathering of mourning.
This is our current reality. I believe with all my heart and soul that we can — and must — change this reality. That goes back to caring for the stranger — caring enough that we’re willing to meet and talk with those who are different from ourselves. Caring enough to recognize that although our experiences may be different and we may disagree, we are still human beings with something we can teach and something we can learn. This is not an easy task. It feels countercultural right now.