Today, like most weekday mornings, I left my home to pray with the minyan (prayer quorum) at the 6 A.M. service in my Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia. Upon my arrival at synagogue, I wrapped myself in my tallit, bound one tefillin box on my arm and placed the other on my head. I prayed like any other day. But, soon that experience of peaceful, contemplative morning prayer would collide with a horror like no other in my memory.
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Soon after arriving home, there were sounds of helicopters overhead and sirens; something was clearly wrong at this early hour. And then I received an email alert. Four Jews were murdered at a synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. Upon pulling the story up on my computer, I saw a video clip of the police engaging the terrorists in a gunfight outside the building. Within seconds of watching, I recognized that synagogue and visualized the exact location.
It has been some time, but for years I used to learn at Kehilat Bnei Torah on Friday mornings before or after morning prayers in the main corridor, adorned with a beautiful marble floor, with my rosh yeshiva, Rav Yitzhak Hirshfeld. Today, we are haunted by images of Jews lying there, still wrapped in their tallitim and with their tefillin still bound on their arms and on their heads, holy texts scattered on the ground, and blood on that same marble floor.
Har Nof is a primarily ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in western Jerusalem, with many Anglo residents. All four of the murdered today were Anglo olim (immigrants to Israel) who lived, prayed, studied and raised families in that community. Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg was an oleh from England. Rabbis Aryeh Kupinsky, Kalman Zeev Levine and Moshe Twersky were all olim from the United States. All of them held dual citizenship, as do I.
I am often asked if on becoming an Israeli citizen I revoked my U.S. citizenship. I explain that I hold both passports and cherish both. I was born in the United States, I was educated there, I met my wife there, our children were all born there, our parents are all still there, along with three of our children (two by birth, one by marriage), and two of our grandchildren. Our roots are in the United States and our gratitude for all that country has provided us cannot be measured and cannot be repaid.
But Israel is our home. During our first family visit to Israel in 1994 we felt a profound connection to both the people and the land that we had never felt anyplace before. We dreamed of coming here someday and our prayers were answered: in 1996 we came here on a one-year sabbatical and are still here today.
Our children grew up here and the years are filled with a lifetime of beautiful memories. But we have also experienced the tragedies of living here over the last 18 years: bus bombings, the Second Intifada, three wars, mourning for the dead, whether friends of friends or our brave soldiers. Despite the chaos that sometimes surrounds us, we have never thought of leaving. How can one leave one’s home?
Our patriarch, Abraham, the first oleh, heeded G-d’s voice and at great personal sacrifice uprooted his family to move to what was then the land of Canaan. Olim today hear that ancient call from this week’s Torah portion, Genesis 26:2, when G-d commanded Abraham’s son, Isaac, not to leave what is today Gaza and to “gur b’aretz,” dwell in the land.
The privilege to live here, as the Talmud teaches us, comes with hardship. But, until today, our synagogues were our sanctuaries, with both meanings of the word. We went there to pray, to study, to celebrate our happy occasions and, sometimes, to eulogize our dead. But today, that sanctuary also became a site where brutal murder profaned the synagogue's holiness, leaving behind a remnant of violence that will forever reverberate and remind all who enter.
Just short hours after the marble floors of Kehilat Bnei Torah were washed down of blood shed during morning prayers, three of the four men that were murdered there were brought to that until-now holy, safe space to be mourned and honored at their funerals.
We have been violated and are now broken because of those who have been taken and what has been taken from us. May the memories of Rabbis Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, Aryeh Kupinsky, Kalman Zeev Levine, and Moshe Twersky all be remembered for a blessing.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.