Pictured: Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was shot but survived the attack.
‘If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?’
– Rabbi Hillel the Elder
I spent the evening before the recent San Diego synagogue attack at the Oxford Chabad House for Shabbat dinner – marking both Passover and the Sabbath. My friend Jonah and I, having successfully secured a place at the table with good strategic access to the food, spent much of the evening in lively debate about the State of Israel. A few of the older faces, whose names I always struggle to remember, wished me good luck with my legal studies. The Rabbi, Eli Brackman, in a characteristic good-humoured irony, offered an alternative explanation for a recent political gaffe (a political party tweeted a “Happy Passover” message accompanied by an image of bread – which is specifically not eaten on Passover) suggesting perhaps the author was actually very well-versed in historical Rabbinical debate, and had simply mixed up Passover with a more obscure Jewish holiday in which bread specifically must be eaten.
Anti-Semitism is always mentioned – Jews are very much aware that there is a certain stratum of humanity that hates them to the point of destruction – and is roundly mocked. A typical joke around the Friday night dinner table at the synagogue might be: “What are you complaining about? I read on the internet that you own the newspapers and the banks!” Last year, someone tried to set the Oxford Chabad House on fire, and, having failed to do that, left a sign saying “Jew House”. A few months ago, Rabbi Brackman and I were randomly harassed on the street by a man shouting expletives about Israel, interrupting an interesting conversation we’d been having about anti-colonial politics in South America. Swastikas are not an uncommon sight to find drawn crudely on walls. Even after all this, the jokes are still made. But the jokes stop for a while when people are actually killed.
I saw Rabbi Brackman on Oxford High Street as I left my College to go buy some bananas, the day after the attack. As we walked into the city centre together, we talked about the news. He told me of his friend, Rabbi Goldstein of Poway, who had been shot through the hand, and of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, the charity worker and pillar of her community, who had been shot to death after jumping in front of the gun to save others as the gunman opened fire.
As we turned the corner, past Carfax Tower, I asked the Rabbi how he felt about this attack, coming, as it did, after the Christchurch Mosque Attacks, and the Tree of Life Synagogue Attack in Pittsburgh a few months prior.
“Ironically, there’s one thing these people have achieved that some thought was impossible,” he said. “They’ve brought Jews and Muslims together.”
“As for what they wanted to achieve with these attacks, I don’t think that’s worked. I don’t feel intimidated by their cowardice, do you?”
“No,” said the Rabbi, “I don’t feel afraid at all.”
Alex Kumar is former President of the Board of the Oxford Chabad Synagogue