Shuls, Jewish schools, community centers and kosher supermarkets have become battlegrounds in the United States over the past few years, much as they have been in the rest of the world for a long time. The spike in violent hate crimes against Jews has dwarfed those committed against any other group with recent murders in Pittsburgh, PA, Poway, CA and Jersey City, NJ.
Jewish communities all over the country are debating how to respond.
In 2015, New York City managed to push through a bill over the objections of several progressive politicians and organizations, to reimburse private schools – including Jewish day schools – for their security forces. That effort may have saved dozens of lives.
Synagogues are now debating whether they need to hire police officers to guard their houses of worship, or at least have people within the community be on alert, perhaps armed.
Many synagogues have turned to a group called the Community Security Service (CSS), which has been actively working with Jewish communities around the country for several years to help them prevent and prepare for emergency situations. As stated on their website:
“CSS provides a wide range of security services at no cost to the Jewish community. From securing thousands of events every year to helping secure facilities, we are the community security experts. Our teams are part of the community, trained by the community, here to protect the community, acting as a key force multiplier for law enforcement. CSS thrives to preserve our way of life and respect Jews from every walk of life. Our organization is supported by Jewish leaders, organizations, and law enforcement. Through our organization, the Jewish community receives the highest level of security training, our teams become the eyes and ears of the community, partnering up with law enforcement to help secure our community in an undisruptive, seamless way.”
Yet even with the training of the CSS and the spike in deadly attacks, many rabbis remain uncomfortable with Jews carrying weapons or using radios on the Sabbath, as it is considered a prohibited activity on the holy day.
It is therefore worth recounting the story of Chanukah, at least a particular one of the lesser known stories.
While many people are familiar with the story of the Maccabees defeating the Syrian-Greeks in battle and purifying the Temple of their pagan rituals, not all of the battles went well. As recounted by Josephus (37CE – 100CE), the Jewish historian in The Antiquities of the Jews in Book 12, Chapter 6, after the priest Matthias began the revolt, he and his sons fled into the desert:
“Many others did the same also; and fled with their children and wives into the desert; and dwelt in caves. But when the King’s generals heard this, they took all the forces they then had in the citadel at Jerusalem, and pursued the Jews into the desert. And when they had overtaken them, they, in the first place, endeavoured to persuade them to repent, and to choose what was most for their advantage; and not put them to the necessity of using them according to the law of war. But when they would not comply with their persuasions, but continued to be of a different mind, they fought against them on the sabbath day: and they burnt them, as they were in the caves, without resistance; and without so much as stopping up the entrances of the caves. And they avoided to defend themselves on that day, because they were not willing to break in upon the honour they owed the sabbath, even in such distresses. For our law requires that we rest upon that day. There were about a thousand, with their wives and children, who were smothered, and died in these caves. But many of those that escaped, joined themselves to Matthias, and appointed him to be their ruler. Who taught them to fight, even on the sabbath day; and told them, that “Unless they would do so, they would become their own enemies, by observing the law [so rigorously,] while their adversaries would still assault them on this day; and they would not then defend themselves: and that nothing could then hinder, but they must all perish, without fighting.” This speech persuaded them. And this rule continues among us to this day; that, if there be a necessity, we may fight on sabbath days.“
Over 2,100 years ago, Jews observed the Sabbath to such a degree that they allowed themselves to be slaughtered rather than put up any resistance. More men, women and children died during one of the first Sabbaths of the Maccabean revolt, than died at Masada 200 years later. But few remember the story.
During this Chanukah which is celebrated against a backdrop of terrible violence against Jews, let us remember all of the stories of the holiday, and make sure that every Jewish place of worship is completely prepared to handle any situation which may arise.
Wishing you a happy and very peaceful Chanukah.
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