Weapons Accompany Worship in Jerusalem
by Andrew Metz
April 29, 2002
Jerusalem - The flier thumbtacked to the The Shtiblach Synagogue bulletin board looks like the others posted around it, advising the congregation of schedules and events. Its message, however, is striking: "Worshippers who have firearms are requested to bring them to prayer services."
Asaf Teboulle, 22, an Orthodox Jew, does just that. On the Sabbath, when prayer replaces work of every kind and even using a phone or a pen is prohibited, he heeds the call to arms and tucks a black 9-mm into his pants. Lately, the pistol has become as much a part of his wardrobe as the yarmulke on his head and the twisted tsi-tsi strands that hang below his shirttails.
"We have seen that there is nothing that prevents terrorists from getting where they want to. They can get to a wedding, a holiday festival," Teboulle said after Saturday evening prayers had finished in this quiet, leafy Jerusalem neighborhood.
"It may not really fit to have a gun in a synagogue," he said, leaning against the stone temple wall, "but this is the sad reality now."
Even the sanctuaries in the Holy Land have been caught up in the conflict.
More than 200 Palestinians, many of them armed, are still holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, considered the birthplace of Jesus, exchanging gunfire with Israeli soldiers. Mosques were damaged during fighting in the Israeli army invasion of the West Bank.
Throughout Israel, congregations have watched in horror as suicide bombers targeted worshippers at a Passover seder and Orthodox Jews leaving synagogue on the Sabbath. In recent days, synagogues around the world have been singled out for attack.
With more violence expected here, the Israeli Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Affairs have responded by urging temples to have four to five worshippers armed with guns and cell phones at services and to station guards at the entrances.
Under normal circumstances, religious authorities here say, carrying a weapon into a synagogue sanctuary would be inappropriate, particularly on the Sabbath.
With Israelis fearing that no place in their country is safe, the chief rabbis have issued the call to arms, citing a central tenet of Judaism known in Hebrew as Pikuach Nefesh, which compels Jews to protect life.
A gun "is not really fit to bring into synagogue," said Chaim Kornberg, a rabbi and religious teacher, who belongs to the Shtiblach Synagogue. "But with the present situation, if you have a gun, I see it as a great obligation to bring it these days."
It is unknown how many synagogues have heeded the recommendation. The directive was sent to the 183 religious councils, representing thousands of places of worship. A great many congregations seem to be stepping up their security.
The movement is yet another indication of how deeply the suicide attacks have terrorized and hardened the Israeli public and shaped its uncompromising military and political retaliation against the Palestinians.
There has not been a bombing inside Israel in more than a week. But many restaurants in Jerusalem are locking their doors during mealtimes, and guards are posted at the tops and bottoms of many streets, checking pedestrians. Around the country, people have been lining up to buy guns and receive permits; enlistment in the civil guard has spiked.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the religious leader of holy places in Israel, said synagogues are as ripe a terrorist target as any place where Israelis gather.
"Wherever there is a congregation of Jewish people, then that is a target," said Rabinowitz, who is the rabbi at the Western Wall in the Old City - the sacred site Jews believe is the last remnant of their first temple. "Preserving life is the most important thing, and in light of the situation we are facing, we have to protect the synagogues. We don't have a choice."
Even the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who live in insular communities within Jerusalem and typically eschew weapons, are taking up security measures.
In the religious Beit Yisrael section of the city, a suicide bomber blew himself up last month, killing at least nine people as they were leaving synagogue at the end of the Sabbath.
On a recent trip through the neighborhood, residents were on noticeable edge when a stranger walked in their midst. A group of men on one synagogue stoop suspiciously eyed a man walking past without the skullcap and traditional black garb ubiquitous here, and after huddling and whispering, one asked another in Hebrew, "terrorist?"
At the Kehilat Zichron Yoseth-Young Israel synagogue, a modern Orthodox community in western Jerusalem, the congregation didn't wait for the national directive to arm itself. They decided to have two to three members armed during their services, as well as a guard outside.
"It makes no difference to a terrorist if it is the night of a Passover seder or a bar or bat mitzvah. If what you need is a weapon, then that is exactly what you need in the synagogue," said Sholom Gold, the rabbi there. "Anybody who can blow himself up amidst a whole group of elderly people who are sitting down for a seder has absolutely no regard for time, place, people, for life."
Sender Bramsome, 62, a construction contractor, takes his Smith & Wesson 9-mm. wherever he goes, including to the synagogues.
"It would be nice if we didn't need to do it," he said, his pistol holstered at his waist as he went to evening prayers in the Old City. "But I feel it's an obligation to me and to the people around me to have a weapon."
Copyright © 2002,
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