Telephone Terrorism and Bomb Threats – Purim 5777

As you most likely know, our local Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos was evacuated on Thursday due to a bomb threat that came in via email sent to the general information address of the JCC.  We should all be proud of how professionally the staff of the four agencies that are housed in the JCC handled everything.

The JCC, Yavneh Day School, Jewish Family Services, and The Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley have undertaken extensive preparations, including practice drills.  When the real thing happened, therefore, they were prepared.

Ironically, there was an open meeting the previous night in which the security protocols were shared with the community.

As a Yavneh parent, I received notifications by text, email and recorded phone call, notifying me that the evacuation had taken place successfully, and that I needed to come pick up my children from the church next to the JCC.

From the moment I pulled up, I was impressed with the response.  The first person I saw, wearing a bright orange vest, was Mindy Berkowitz, the Director of JFS.  She was standing at the corner of Oka and Lark directing traffic and answering questions from Yavneh and JCC preschool parents who were coming to pick up their children.

Other staff were strategically placed to direct us in and answer questions.  The students were inside the church sanctuary.  They were calm and well-behaved.

On our way home, my kids had questions, but they were not scared or stressed.  I am grateful that there has been such thoughtful preparation.

I am also angry.

This whole episode, and the more than one hundred other evacuations of JCC’s, schools, museums, and Jewish organizations that have taken place over the past two months are infuriating.

I imagine that the perpetrator is some person or small group of people sitting around in a basement, googling “Jewish Community Center,” and randomly sending out these threats.  It is too easy.  And we have no choice but to take it seriously, because “what if…?”

A term that has been used to describe what is going on is “telephone terrorism.”  A simple phone call or email can prompt a huge, potentially scary response.  We must remember that this is the goal of terrorism – to provoke irrational terror in a population.  So to counter it, we must find a way to respond appropriately and realistically, recognizing that antisemitism is real, but also recognizing that the actual risk is low, and our need to continue living is great.

In trying to navigate my way through these experiences, I try to balance two opposing inclinations: naivety and fear.

I am struck by the timing, just a few days before Purim.  The story of Megillat Esther is the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy.  Every detail in it is an extreme exaggeration.  It serves as a satirical parody of life in the Diaspora.  Consider if the themes in Megillat Esther have parallels to other periods in Jewish history, including our own.

The story of Purim is set in the Diaspora.  The Jews are a minority living among many other religious and ethnic groups.  They are not part of the dominant culture.

In the story, the government, at first, is ambivalent towards the Jews.  King Achashverosh does not even know they exist.  In the Megillah’s caricature of him, he is a buffoon who only wants to party.  Neither Haman nor Esther ever identify the Jews by name to the King.  Both of them refer simply to “a certain people.”

Haman, of course, is the wicked one.  Driven by personal hatred and jealousy, he sets out to exterminate the Jewish people from the Persian Empire.  He does it through lies and manipulation.

He tells the King that there is a certain people who are not to be trusted.  Their loyalties are divided.  They place their own laws above those of the King.  They are dispersed throughout the Empire, and thus represent a threat to his very rule.

Then, Haman promises to deposit ten thousand talents of silver, about 333 tons, a ridiculously impossible sum of money, into the royal coffers if the King will permit him to kill them all.  The King is so impressed by Haman’s report of this imminent danger, that he authorizes his scheme and declines the bribe.

Antisemitism rears its ugly head, and the Jews are powerless.  The Empire is partying and displaying its excesses, while Mordechai and his fellow refugees are struggling to eke out a living, still in shock over the Temple’s destruction.  Now, they face extermination within the year.

But then, in a miraculous turn of events, the Jews gain entry into the halls of power.  Esther, an orphan, is selected to be Queen.  She rises straight to the top.  Through her cleverness, she manages to turn the tables on Haman – in most bloody fashion.

The King claims to not be able to overturn his own decree.  Instead, he authorizes Esther’s executive order granting Jews throughout the Persian Empire permission to defend themselves against their enemies.  We don’t know who these enemies are, but they seem to be pervasive.  In two days, the Jewish people kill Haman, his ten sons, and 800 people in the capital city of Shushan.  They kill 75,000 of their enemies throughout the rest of the Empire.  Meanwhile, terror descends upon the other peoples of the lands, and a great many of them become Jews, or at least claim to be Jewish.

The story ends with Esther, Mordechai, and the rest of the Jewish people living happily ever after.

A detail that makes Megillat Esther particularly poignant is the absence of God’s name anywhere in the Megillah.  There are not even any references.  A midrash identifies the beginning of chapter six, when King Achashverosh cannot sleep, as a hidden allusion.  Nadedah sh’nat haMelekh.  The King’s sleep was disturbed.  Not King Achashverosh, but The King.  This is the turning point in the story, when things start to go well for the Jews.  Similarly, there is a tradition in many megillot for a scribe to start each column, beginning with column number two, with the word HaMelekh, putting God into the story.

We also live in a time in which God’s Presence is hidden.  It takes an act of interpretation and faith on our part to recognize God in the world.

At the end of the Megillah, Esther and Mordechai issue instructions for the annual observance of Purim, to celebrate the victory over their enemies.  How is it celebrated?  Through acts of violence to replicate the story in the Megillah?  No, quite the opposite.  Four mitzvot: reading the megillah – mikra megillah, having a Purim feast – seudat Purim, giving gifts of food to one another – mishloach manot, and giving gifts of food to the poor – matanot la-evyonim.

These are wonderful, community activities.  They bring us together in joy and merriment.  For a holiday that celebrates our violent deliverance from near annihilation, it’s pretty tame, if you ask me.  But it sets up two extreme responses to the precariousness of Diaspora life: violence and bloodshed on the one hand – and costume parties and feasting with our community, on the other.  The daily reality of Diaspora life lies somewhere in the middle.

Antisemitism is real.  We can’t be naive or complacent about that.  On the other hand, we cannot allow it to prevent us from celebrating together, from building community.

That is why our observance of Purim is so important, especially with what has been going on recently.  It helps us give voice to our fear, but also enables us to put it in context.

Thursday night, after the police announced the “all-clear” and the JCC reopened, the Yavneh school musical, Golden Dream, went ahead as scheduled.  There were so many audience members there that extra rows of seats had to be added in the back.  The musical was great.  The kids did a wonderful job.  But the evening was even more powerful given what everyone there had experienced earlier in the day.

It was a celebration of life, a celebration of our commitment to be engaged in the world despite uncertainty.

That is why I am so excited for Purim tonight and tomorrow.  I look forward to reading the Megillah together, dancing, singing, feasting, and sharing.  I hope you’ll join me.

Chag Purim Sameach.

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