After the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a national Jewish organization announces an interfaith “Show Up for Shabbat” event. Rabbi Joel Sisenwine agrees to open the doors of the temple, but questions the value of an interfaith event when his community is seeking safety and security.
As Rabbi Joel Sisenwine drove along 5th Avenue into Midtown Manhattan for a brief birthday getaway with his wife, Heidi, his cell phone rang. The road trip from the Boston suburbs went by quickly, the trees still ablaze with autumn colors in late October. Sisenwine remembered, “At about 69th Street, I get the call.” He continued to drive as he listened to one of the Temple educators describe the horrible details of gunfire erupting during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Many were feared to be dead. By the time Sisenwine reached 65th Street, just a few blocks later, New York’s landmark synagogue Temple Emanu-El came into view. The large, historic temple was surrounded by the National Guard and officers carrying machine guns.
The rabbi’s thoughts turned to his own synagogue, Temple Beth Elohim (TBE), back in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The next day, hundreds of people would be coming in and out for Hebrew School. “So, what was the procedure going to be?” Sisenwine wondered, as he considered whether to turn his car around and drive back to Massachusetts immediately. With a capable clergy team of five and plans already coming together for a vigil at TBE that evening, Sisenwine decided to return the following day: he would handle the calls about safety and security arrangements over the phone.
Safety, Sisenwine reflected, wasn’t just a matter of a police presence or guards at the door. It was about community members feeling comfortable returning to the synagogue for regular Shabbat services the following week. With eleven confirmed dead, the Tree of Life shootings were the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Yet when Sisenwine heard the news, he realized that he wasn’t surprised. He sighed, “I was not shocked. Just deeply sad.” He reflected: “Right now it’s just a matter of comforting people that they’re going to be secure.”
Back in Wellesley the next day, Sisenwine received an email from the American Jewish Congress: “Today we are launching #ShowupforShabbat a new nationwide initiative aimed at filling synagogues across the country. Join us…” As Sisenwine read the message announcing the initiative just one week after the shootings, he thought: “This is terrible. They just invited outsiders to come, when my synagogue is fearful, to open the doors?” He worried: “Now do we have to have metal detectors? Do we ask people not to bring bags? Do we ask them to RSVP?”
In addition to grappling with security issues, Sisenwine also needed to shape the service and write a sermon. As a leader, he reflected, “Ultimately, my job is to give the answer. But I have to figure out the question. If people come with one question and I'm answering a different question, it doesn't matter how good my answer is …. the service didn't meet their needs.” Friday’s Shabbat services were in just five days, and the doors would be open whether he—and his community—were ready or not.
All quotes from Rabbi Joel Sisenwine: Rabbi Joel Sisenwine, interview by author, Wellesley, MA, November 18, 2018.