Local Jewish leader reflects on synagogue standoff that threatened his friend's life
"Love your neighbor as yourself … that for me is critical and it’s central, it’s in our holiness code," said Rabbi Jason Nevarez, the leader of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest Jewish congregation in San Diego.
But last Friday an act of kindness to a stranger by his dear friend Rabbi Charlie Cryton-Walker, inside a Texas synagogue also named Beth Israel, turned into an 11 hour standoff.
Rabbi Nevarez got a message from a mutual friend during the standoff.
"For me it was heartache, another senseless terror attack, another senseless tragedy in a house of worship and when are we going to learn and for me I was just more concerned about Charlie and thinking about his family," he said, adding that the training they have gone through and practice regularly, not only helped his friend survive but helped everyone escape safely. "I can’t use any other word to describe him than as a hero."
He said their congregation and almost all Jewish leaders work with local, state and federal agencies to ensure places of worship are as safe as possible. "So any kind of hostile situations, lockdowns, active shooter training, those are part and parcel of our training that we have to go through in order to maintain our communities sadly, as sad as it is, it helps us and it helped Rabbi Charlie in this moment," he said.
Entering the synagogue and campus is something most of us never have to experience just to practice our faith. They take security very seriously at Beth Israel. It is not an open campus. It has armed guards, a large wall surrounding the synagogue and a sturdy gate.
Rabbi Nevarez said everyone who attends and visits feels safe and they are accustomed to the extra security. "I think that we’ve kind of transcended that and come to acceptance and surrender over that reality, it’s a sad reality, it’s a necessary reality," he said.
But Rabbi Nevarez said this doesn’t mean they don’t welcome the stranger, saying, "For us we’re always going to welcome people but first we may have to vet them a little bit in order to welcome them."
He added that it’s not what they do inside the walls but outside of them that builds community with people they have nothing in common with. He said that message is important for everyone and it begins with our words. "Charlie was able to use goodness and kindness in order to bring an end, a successful end to this painful tragedy," he said, "and I believe that the more we promote kindness it become infectious and that is the language I’d would rather spew into the world than the language of hate."
As the sun goes down and they observe this Sabbath he says they will honor his friend Rabbi Charlie and use this moment to remember their strength, "These moments do not anchor us in our pain and sorrow, they help us transcend to moments where we can continue to be free, where we can continue to be a light on to others where we can continue to lead by example and do good and justice in this world."