Hate Knocks on the Door: What to do when your synagogue is vandalized? – Rabbi Shira Stutman (’07)

By Carly Pildis

Originally published in Tablet Magazine on Dec. 10, 2019

Rabbi Stutman serves as rabbi at Sixth & I, Washington D.C.

Rabbi Stutman serves as rabbi at Sixth & I, Washington D.C.

On Nov. 29, the Shabbat directly after Thanksgiving, anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas, was carved into the front door of the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington, D.C.

You could be forgiven for seeing this as a minor event. No one was beaten. No one was killed. There was no shooter. In a time when hate crimes have risen dramatically, blood has been spilled in our synagogues, and violence against Orthodox Jews has become a regular occurrence, it would be understandable to think that one more synagogue covered in graffiti was no big deal and certainly no surprise.

Except it absolutely is. 

I was at an airport when I got the news that the synagogue, my synagogue, was defaced. I’ve spent the last few years writing about anti-Semitism, so you’d think I’d be immune to such news by now. I wasn’t. I started crying. Not the kind of crying you can hide or play off as a cold. Real crying, with big, fat tears rolling down my cheeks. The whole airport brewery realized right away that something terrible just happened to me. 

So before you go on shrugging your shoulders and saying that a few swastikas on a synagogue door isn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened, let me tell you about that door, and how it changed my life. 

The first time I walked through that door was with my boyfriend. He was thinking about converting. We had been dating on and off for 15 years. Marrying outside of Judaism had never been an option for me, and we had struggled for years with how to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable gap. We had begun with Shabbat dinners at home, and fell in love with the ritual that soon shaped our weeks. But our first synagogue visit had been a disaster: When he walked in, an usher approached my black boyfriend and asked him if he was the cab driver for an elderly congregant. The racism was stark and painful. 

It was a very long time before we walked through another synagogue door. I was terrified to go back to shul. Everything felt so precarious, like the wrong experience could upend everything I was hoping to build. I desperately wanted to have a Jewish family with the man I loved and was overwhelmed at putting our lives in any institution’s hands.

When we went to the front door of Sixth and I, we had an appointment to discuss joining Jewish Welcome Workshop, an introductory class on Judaism that could provide a path to conversion. We were expected to be turned away three times, to be greeted by austerity and suspicion. My husband wore a full suit and tie, I wore a sweater set and pearls. The door flew open, and there was Rabbi Shira Stutman.  She beamed, smiling and immediately embraced us. “Welcome,” she said, “welcome to Sixth and I.”

It was just what we needed to hear, and the beginning of my husband’s conversion, which brought us both closer to Judaism. Sixth and I was such a welcoming, warm, deeply intellectual and spiritual place; it even accommodated my grueling work schedule at Obama for America, finding a young Jewish man to drive my husband to synagogue and keep him company. Together, we studied, and we learned, and we fell in love with Judaism: him for the first time, and me all over again. When my husband went to the mikvah, it was one of the happiest days of my life. We made our closest friends at shul, traveled to Israel with a Sixth and I trip, and built a lifelong community that prays together, eats together, celebrates weddings and babies together.

I have heard similar stories from hundreds of families throughout D.C., all grateful for the synagogue and its open door. And I often wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t walked through that door, or what our community would be like if every Jewish door was so willing to open. It is no exaggeration to say that this door represents an open and welcome Judaism, one that is built on justice, inclusivity, community, and a thirst for both knowledge and spiritual fulfillment. 

And now someone stuck a knife in that door and carved a swastika. 

In this time of endless cruelty and daily assaults in our community, it is easy to become numb. It’s easy to go into professional mode and talk about strategies and tactics to combat rising hates. That’s all fine, but as this most recent attack on my spiritual home reminded me, it’s also important that we never, ever lose our capacity to be shocked and pained by even the most minute sign of hate. 

I refuse to lose my capacity for outrage. I refuse to treat this latest attack as another statistic. It’s not: It’s an attempt to transform a symbol of inclusivity and hope into one of prejudice and genocide. And I won’t stand for it. Instead, I will respond to this assault as I believe Jews everywhere should: by doubling down on our commitments—emotional and financial alike—to our synagogues, our schools, our sacred spaces and our communities. We must respond with love,  opening our hearts and our wallets and volunteering our time and our know-how, even if it just means reaching out with a phone call to those who suffer or feel unsafe. This is why we must continue to feel so moved by even the most minor hate crime: Because it will give us the opportunity to turn outrage into action, sadness into hope, fear into community building. 

It will give us, in short, a chance to make sure that we keep our doors open, always. 

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