My Chicago Synagogue Was Firebombed—But We’re Not Leaving

Being able to share community means accepting, and even embracing, vulnerability.

A surveillance video shows the person who tried to use Molotov cocktails to start a fire at the Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation.
A surveillance video shows the person who tried to use Molotov cocktails to start a fire at the Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation. (Chicago Police Department via AP)

“There are four primary causes of injury: the ox and the pit and the crop-destroying beast and fire.” Those are the opening words of Bava Kamma, the tractate of the Mishnah—the first authoritative compendium of rabbinic Jewish law—that deals with the laws of damages. The deeper meaning of the Mishnah is that there is one primary cause of injury: people living in proximity to one another.

Human proximity puts our property at risk: A neighbor’s dog could wreck your garden, a construction project poses a public danger, a backyard fire can burn out of control. You and your stuff would be safer kept away from others.

In the early hours of Sunday, a man threw three Molotov cocktails at the synagogue in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side where I serve as director of religious engagement, a member of the clergy. He did not succeed in causing any damage. When we arrived for services on Sunday morning, some noticed broken bottles but hurried along with their day. Only later did our maintenance staff notice that the bottles were surrounded by puddles of oil and charred rags. We called the police and looked through our security footage; we realized we had been attacked.

These types of attacks are becoming common: Synagogues, mosques, and black churches around the country and the world have faced violence in the past few months. It’s easy to assume that the solution is to wall ourselves off, to draw apart. If, ultimately, other people pose the greatest threat to my person and my property, perhaps I should distance myself from them.

Jewish legal sources—including the Mishnah, and the later rabbinic elaborations in the Talmud—have a lot to say about restitution for damages. Nowhere, however, does Jewish law recommend living in isolation. Community is essential to being a Jew, because community is essential to being a human. We need one another. When we live in close proximity, we will inevitably cause damage to our neighbors, whether with our words or our actions, and we lay ourselves open to being damaged in turn. But the implicit message of Bava Kamma is: The risk is worth it.

Jewish law obligates us to gather. We gather to study, we gather to pray, we gather to celebrate, and we gather to mourn. The members of my synagogue live near one another, for on Shabbat we commute to synagogue only by foot—and so in our community we are not just co-religionists but also neighbors, sharing cups of sugar, folding chairs, and playdates. At our synagogue we hold three prayer services a day: morning, afternoon, and evening. Some of our most central religious activities simply cannot be performed without the presence of others.

These gatherings make us vulnerable. On a day-to-day basis, we are perhaps more aware of how they make us vulnerable to our fellow community members. Our synagogue is a community of differences. Our congregants are diverse in age, race, sexual orientation, marital status, political affiliation, and socioeconomic situation. Being able to share community amidst such differences mean accepting and even embracing vulnerability.

And so in our synagogue, 20-year-olds sit next to 70-year-olds every week. Republicans and Democrats share pleasant conversation, perhaps agreeing on various areas of synagogue policy or learning from one another in Torah study. Families invite newcomers into their home for meals and conversation, drawn together by the warmth of Jewish hospitality modeled by the biblical Abraham. And even the most deep-seated differences can be temporarily set aside: Cubs, White Sox, and even Cardinals fans pray side by side. In a polarized world, our synagogue stands out as a model of what living around other people can be.

Under attack, we realize that there’s another type of vulnerability that we face when we gather. We are also vulnerable to outsiders. Just having a holy space at all, in this day and age, makes a community open to attacks. Our urban location makes us particularly visible. And yet, it is important for us to remember that we also benefit from that visibility. Jews who come to Chicago for conferences find hospitality in our synagogue. We have the opportunity to educate the wider Chicago population about Judaism. Our members enjoy the arts, culture, and convenience that the city offers. And we gain wonderful neighbors. Our community benefits tremendously from our location, even as it makes us vulnerable.

On Sunday evenings, I teach a short lesson in Jewish law after services. This Sunday evening, my selection was obvious. “There are four primary causes of injury: the ox and the pit and the crop-destroying beast and fire.” Our sacred space had been violated, but the Torah had something to say about it. The Torah knows that people living in proximity occasionally cause one another harm, even through fire, and the Torah tells us: It’s worth it. Stay.

And so we will defiantly continue to gather. In our synagogue, behind the stained-glass windows that the arsonist failed to break, we will come together to worship and study and grow. Together we will rise above the fear that the arsonist so desperately hoped to instill in us. Our synagogue will remain a powerful reminder that humans can and will and must gather, with all of our differences, because only in community can we live out our fullest human potentials of holiness, kindness, and service.