Lafayette Square, Washington D.C., 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 27
Wax drips off the candle someone placed in my hands and I press it between my fingers. At this hybrid havdalah-vigil, candles of all shapes cast an orange glow among the concentric circles of people. Mine is a Shabbat candle, white and tapered at one end, and I see some braided havdalah candles scattered through the crowd. Shabbat candles at havdalah and havdalah candles to commemorate death. It’s all wrong.
The White House looms in the background, bright and formidable, as the words of leaders from Bend the Arc, HIAS, URJ, and others drift over us: We are and have always been a refugee people. While tonight we grieve, tomorrow we act.
The American flag stirs in the chilly breeze. A car alarm goes off, and the city carries on around us.
I hear a woman behind me whisper in Hebrew to someone else, “Can you hear?” And I wonder if they live here in Washington or if they’re Israeli tourists getting a taste of America. For all the talk these days about the growing gap between Israeli and American Jews, miserable experiences still seem to tie us together.
I was in high school when a terrorist blew up the 37 bus in Haifa, killing one of the girls who had visited our school the previous year as part of the Boston-Haifa exchange program. I still remember her name, Tal Kerman. And her wide smile, glasses and auburn hair. She liked cats and Lord of the Rings. I remember being perplexed when I heard she was killed in the attack, as though her murder was a word problem I couldn’t solve. A 17-year-old girl gets on a bus after school as it travels 30 miles per hour. When will she arrive home? Answer: never.
But today, as I read that eight, then 10, then 11 people were gone, I shuddered and moaned, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” This is the world. There’s no time for chin-scratching perplexity. Now, a speaker points out that 11 people is a whole community, more than a minyan. And I think about the press conference earlier today when a public official revealed that no children were among the 11; how a tiny sigh of relief escaped me.
When the speeches are finished, the crowd draws closer, strangers draping arms around one another to sing the havdalah blessings and bid this tragic Shabbat goodbye. The crowd is big enough that our voices never quite sync up perfectly, so the words echo around the circles like the wave at a baseball game. A small jar of broken cinnamon sticks passes from hand to hand as we bless the spices. Some people don’t know what it’s for, so others tell them, “You smell it.” We’re all different kinds of Jews, but we’re all here.
Afterward, there is more singing. We go through some standards: “Kol ha’Olam Kulo,” “Oseh Shalom,” “Hinei Mah Tov.” And then someone throws out, “Am Yisrael Chai.” We don’t know what to do. Is it too upbeat? But people join in. Next comes the Hanukkah classic, “Ma’oz Tsur.” I frown. Sure, it’s cold out, but not that cold.
And yet it fits: Tikon beit tefilati. Restore my house of prayer.
The crowd thins. We dissipate, dissolving back into America for the night. Tomorrow, we’ll learn who we are mourning.