Where Jews are unafraid to pray…

Above: the Spanish Synagogue in Venice, Italy (image via the Venice Museo Ebraico [Jewish Museum] Facebook). There’s no big sign outside revealing the presence of a house of worship. And there’s a reason for that.

The text messages began to arrive from Italy via WhatsApp and Facebook around 3 p.m. on Saturday.

“Are you okay? Are you in San Diego? Is your family alright?”

I hadn’t felt my phone vibrate in my pocket because I was playing guitar, loudly, with some of my neighbors.

When I saw the texts, I searched frantically for timely news from San Diego.

One Dead in Synagogue Shooting Near San Diego; Officials Call It Hate Crime, read the headline.

I broke away from my bandmates and called my mom. Everyone in our family was okay, she said.

It turned out that the attack happened in Poway, a roughly 50-minute drive from where my brothers and I grew up in La Jolla and where my mother and older brother still live and where he attends shul with his family. Thankfully, they were never in harm’s way.

My mother reminded me of the first time I went to synagogue in Venice, Italy, when I was a junior in college studying abroad for the first time.

Remember how surprised you were? she asked me. You had never been to a synagogue with armed guards outside, she remembered.

That was back in 1987 and I had never attended a Jewish house of worship beyond my hometown and Los Angeles where I went to school (and the occasional shul I visited in the midwest for bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies and funerals).

I was just a green 19-year-old who was learning about the world. It had never occurred to me that Jews were at risk of violence — simply because they congregated to pray.

But in Italy at the time, the memories of the “Years of Lead” and the terror of the 1970s were still fresh in people’s minds. And although it wasn’t as visible as it is today, anti-Semitism in Italy and Europe was unavoidable.

I can remember so clearly in mind thinking to myself: aren’t we fortunate to live in a country, America, where Jews can worship free of fear? I never imagined, in a million years, that one day synagogues in my country would need to be protected by armed guards outside — like I saw for the first time more than 30 years ago in Italy.

But then again, this is the America we live in today: a place where Jews are now afraid to pray.

Our hearts and prayers go out to everyone who was affected by the Poway shooting. What a world — what an America — we live in!

The shul where the attack occurred is run by the orthodox movement Chabad. In a newsletter it circulated last night, the editors wrote: “Cold-blooded, fanatical, baseless, relentless hatred can be uprooted from its core only by saturating our world with pure, undiscriminating, uninhibited, unyielding love and acts of kindness, and by teaching that to all our children, in our schools and our homes.”

Words to live by in a dark time for America.

G-d bless America. G-d bless us all.

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