On the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, hate-mongering vandals desecrated the monument that marks the entrance to Gates of Heaven, one of the oldest synagogue buildings in the country. For over a decade, I would walk the 2 miles around Monona Bay from my house to attend lay-led High Holy Days services in this building, restored and conserved in a public park. As a public park space, I felt more sense of community there than in a traditional congregation-owned building. Each fall, the tiny space would be packed, mostly with people I knew, some sitting outside the open windows listening because there was no more space inside. I felt safe.
Synagogues, like churches and mosques, are sanctuaries, literally “places of refuge or safety,” which is why violence against them and the people in them, such as the bombing of churches in the 1960s and the massacre of bible students in Charleston, is particularly egregious. There is a wide difference between the cowardly act of vandalism last week and the terrorism of Birmingham and Charleston, but they are on the same spectrum of violence against innocent people who are hated simply for being different than the perpetrator. Having worshipped at Gates of Heaven for years, I feel this act of violence against me personally. That it was perpetrated in the name of the man who currently occupies the White House makes it not just a hate crime, but a political act as well, and one he is unlikely to disavow.
With this, I wade into the stormy waters of “safe places” and “safe spaces” on college campuses. A firm believer in free speech and that education should involve “lighting a fire, not filling a bucket,” while also wanting to make all students feel valued, the “safe spaces” issue is a complicated one for me. But something crystalized when I read the story of the vandalism this morning because it is personal, because I feel personally violated; sometimes, even for a progressive thinker, it takes that shock to the system to achieve necessary clarity. If I were a Jewish student or faculty member at UW-Madison [although the synagogue building is in a city park and not on campus, Madison is very much a college town], I would be looking this week for a literal sanctuary, a safe place where I can be with other Jews, knowing that we would not be attacked. Although I knew it intellectually before, I now know that such places are necessary in my very bones; I feel it, beyond just knowing it.
I have intentionally been using the word “places” instead of “spaces.” “Place is a space imbued with meaning,” Walter Benjamin wrote. It is not enough to have a “space” where people – on campuses, online, and elsewhere – can aggregate safely. People need “places,” dedicated physical locations, where they can worship, speak, and think without fear of attack; places that are “sanctuaries”. Those places, however, do not include my classroom, where students are encouraged to look at multiple viewpoints, question their assumptions, and argue their opinions respectfully. My classroom is safe in a different way; it is a space where all ideological viewpoints are valued, even if they may not be shared.
There is a phrase from the liturgy we read inside Gates of Heaven and elsewhere: “Hold your dear ones near to you and your near ones dear to you.” Sometimes, we all need a place to hold those dear ones near and without fear so that when we leave the sanctuary to enter the wider world, we are ready to resist the hate that appears bent on making our safest places feel endangered.
Shanah tovah to you all.
[top photo by Dylan Brogan, Isthmus newspaper; bottom photo by James Steakley, CC 3.0]