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A Pop Quiz To Get Into Synagogue

Heightened security in Europe means having to prove your Jewishness

Chelsea Garbell
February 20, 2015
A soldier stands guard outside the Great Synagogue in Bordeaux on January 15, 2015. (JEAN PIERRE MULLER/AFP/Getty Images)

A soldier stands guard outside the Great Synagogue in Bordeaux on January 15, 2015. (JEAN PIERRE MULLER/AFP/Getty Images)

I rounded the corner and started examining the London townhouses, knowing the one I sought would be devoid of markers announcing any Jewish presence. Finally spotting the synagogue, I went to climb the stairs when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw two men in dark coats cross the street and call to me. I knew who they were and what they wanted.

Questions and answers.

“Where are you going?”

“To synagogue.”

“Where are you from?”

I paused, because I’m never really sure of that answer any more. “New York. I work for New York University, I’m visiting.”

“Where do you go to synagogue?”

Again, I faltered. There were too many answers to that question. “Well, I’m originally from Seattle and there I went to Shevet Achim.”

“Who is your rabbi?”

In Seattle? New York? “Well, it’s complicated, but Rabbi Yehuda Sarna.”

“Ok, and do you keep Shabbat?”


“Do you have ID?” Trick question.

“No, but I emailed my passport copy to the shul on Thursday.”

“OK, and is there anything in your pockets?”

Just my hands, I showed them. Convinced, they radioed inside and the doors opened.

Question and answers.

I was late, arriving only in time for kiddush. I stayed for minchah to make up the difference.

Leaving in a light drizzle, I began to cry. The streets of London aren’t like those of New York City, where crying in public is par for the course, almost a right of passage. I clasped one hand over my mouth and the other to my gut, pulling my sorrow back inward.

I tried to name my sorrow as I walked to lunch. I have had to prove my Judaism before, and in ways far more painful. But never had I done so in order to simply enter a shul. Never had shibboleth been needed in order for me to pray in community. The questions were like those asked by El Al security before a flight to Israel.

It was both the act of proving my identity and the dark reality of why I was being asked to do so that had me fighting the urge to sink into the pavement on that gray Saturday. I cried for the security I’d left behind as an American Jew, and for those who could not fathom it.

Two Shabbatot later, another shooting, another dead Jew in a synagogue in Europe. Both soldiers and armed volunteers adorn our houses of worship. Who stands outside of yours?

On Monday night I sat in the pews of the Great Synagogue of Florence for a memorial service for Dan Uzan, the synagogue guard killed in Copenhagen. The cadence of Italian fell lightly on my ears, the words reverberating in the dome of the ceiling, their echoes adding gravitas. Lost, I began reading the Hebrew inscriptions on the illuminated walls. Above the ark, where I am often comforted to see the words “Da lifne mi atah omed”—“know before whom you stand,” instead was written “Barukh kavod Hashem mimkomo.” “Blessed is the honor of God in His place.” I read those words over and over, hardly noticing as I stood for Kaddish and answered amen. I kept re-reading.

And then I thought of #IGoToSynagogue, the hashtag created by the European Union of Jewish Students after the Copenhagen shooting to show solidarity and express the right of Jews to gather and worship in community and in peace.

I thought of how Judaism lives and breathes in community. A quorum of 10 to pray; witnesses for life cycle events; Shabbat dinners kosher food. We are not meant to live our Judaism alone, and to attack our holy places is to attack the core of what it means to be a Jew. Theologian Keith Ward explains that there are transcendent dimensions of the human experience that make a claim on our lives, and our creative response is what reveals our values and how we make sense of the world. In our Jewish communities, we build space to invite those moments of transcendence, and we move into the world to live our religious traditions, our creative response to humanity.

Baruch kavod Hashem mimkomo.

I have not yet cried for Copenhagen, but I will soon. I will travel there on Monday to show solidarity with the community, to stand and pray with them in quorum.

I will answer questions, I will tell my Jewish story, I will struggle out loud. Not in a posture of fear or defense, rather in one of proclamation. A performative act that claims space in the world and says, quite simply, “I am a Jew.”

Chelsea Garbell is the Global Program Coordinator for the NYU Global Center for Jewish Life, which creates opportunities for Jewish students studying abroad to engage with local communities.

Chelsea Garbell has worked as a researcher at the Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership at NYU, and as the global program coordinator at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU. She sits on the board of the American Jewish Committee ACCESS NY and is co-chair of the Muslim-Jewish Taskforce on the Global ACCESS Steering Committee.

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