By Yehuda Friedman
When I first heard about the firebomb attack early Wednesday morning on Congregation Beth El in Rutherford, NJ, it sent shock waves through me and produced deep and heartfelt emotions. You see, I am the grandson of four Holocaust survivors, and I knew that the window through which the firebomb had been thrown was a reminder of the broken glass that my grandparents had witnessed. I had heard about the other incidents across the Jewish religious spectrum in North Jersey over the past month, which also bothered me tremendously, but this attack resonated not only because of my grandparents, but because I too grew up in a small congregation in a New York suburb. It could have happened to me.
This attack was not just on Rabbi Nosson Schuman and his family – it was an attack on the Jewish identity. I knew I had to get involved personally, but also in my role as Associate Director of the Department of Community Engagement of the Orthodox Union, in which I have daily interactions with synagogues nationally to work with them on strengthening and empowering their communities.
When I arrived at the synagogue in Rutherford, a fleet of news trucks and police cars were positioned outside. As I approached the steps and saw the broken glass, it gave me chills to know that someone tried not only to attack the synagogue, but to kill Rabbi Schuman and his family, who live on the second floor of the congregation.
Rabbi Schuman came to the door, naturally appearing very concerned for the well-being of his family. I informed him that the OU was here to provide support and comfort and that we had already been in touch with various agencies, including the Governor’s office, about the seriousness of this matter.
Rabbi Schuman was very appreciative of the OU’s support. He told me about the shul’s security needs – in fact, it had no security except the lock on the door. I informed him that the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs would work with him and his congregation to attempt to secure the vital funding to improve the lighting and surveillance of the building, and that we would work with federal and state lawmakers and officials to expedite this process.
I have worked for the OU for almost three years, helping to provide resources and to connect synagogues with one another across North America. This attack was an attack on all of them, as each felt viscerally that they too had been threatened.
With all of my responsibilities in terms of advising synagogues, arranging conferences, and conferring with rabbis, presidents, executive directors and board members – and with the travel that this requires – this short trip to Rutherford was my first experience in dealing with a synagogue that had been attacked. Inevitably, this changes the meaning of community engagement in my mind. Now, I will see synagogues and their communities not only as houses of worship, not only as epicenters of Jewish life and spiritual nourishment, but as guardians of our identities as Jews against anti-Semitic hatred and violence.
I thank God that nobody was injured in the attack on Congregation Beth El, but the broken glass is a reminder of what previous generations of Jews have experienced. At the OU, we are reminded every day that we live in a wonderful country, with every possibility of religious freedom, but at the same time we are aware that strengthened education of adults and youth is necessary to effectively combat hatred.
Meanwhile, if and when these heinous acts occur, the Orthodox Union stands strong with other Jewish organizations to respond, and to take immediate, swift and effective action in support of our people.