A Disturbing ‘Happy New Year!’

So, this happened: Gary and I were attending morning services at synagogue last Tuesday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when a man ran down the aisle naked from the waist down. The rabbi blocked his path as he was attempting to go up to the bimah (in our shul it is a raised stage where the rabbi and cantor lead services and where the Torah is housed). The rabbi yelled, “Get out! You can’t do this!” Four male congregants ran to assist the rabbi, escorting the man back up the aisle and out of the sanctuary. The naked man was yelling ‘Happy New Year!’ He did not resist the rabbi’s effort to block him or the men who led him out. The whole incident took only a minute or two. When the rabbi resumed services, he began by saying that though it is understandable that we react in anger to this disturbance, we must also remember to have compassion. There are broken people in our community, and we should have compassion for those who are.

I felt terribly sad. Gary and I stayed for the remainder of the service. I thought the rabbi handled the incident well. I thought his message was on point.

While riding home in the car, I learned Gary’s reaction was similar to mine. We were both aware that it could have been so much worse – from the man being aggressive or belligerent, to congregants overreacting and assaulting him, to totally disrupting the service. Gary told me he didn’t move to help because he thought the men who were closest had it under control – at a certain point if more people went over it would make matters worse. I agreed with his judgment. We were both unnerved that someone would do such a thing – we wondered what was going on in his mind.

When I got home, I looked at my phone (I had not brought it to temple) and saw that I missed a call from a friend who is also a congregant at our synagogue. Her voicemail asked me to call her back. I did. Our conversation shed a different light on the events I described above.

She had been at services and was in the lobby getting ready to leave because her husband was feeling uncomfortable about the man’s behavior. Let me give some context.

Probably a half hour to 45 minutes before galloping down the aisle with only a red Coca-Cola t-shirt on, the man was meandering through the pews wishing each congregant a happy new year. He stopped and shook each man’s hand and greeted each woman – Gary and I included. This is not the custom in synagogue. He was somewhat underdressed for the holiday wearing a plaid button-down shirt and beige corduroy pants (most men wear suits and ties). He was not wearing a tallit (prayer shawl which men typically wear on Rosh Hashana), but he did have a yarmulke on. I thought he seemed odd and I looked at him closely. I noted that he had a small hard cover book in his front pants pocket. I did not see anything that seemed menacing. Though his demeanor seemed off, I was not frightened.

After greeting each congregant, he climbed up the stairs to the bimah to see the rabbi – this was during silent prayer. The rabbi waved him off gruffly and the man turned around and climbed back down the stairs. Not long after, as he was standing in the aisle, a congregant, who I thought I recognized as a member of the temple board, approached him and invited him to sit next to him. He went willingly. They were seated a few rows ahead of Gary and me. I was very appreciative that someone reached out to connect with him. The two men appeared to engage in some conversation, and he stayed seated there for a while. Eventually he meandered away, but I didn’t see where he went.

The next time I saw him, he was loping down the aisle sans pants shouting happy new year, as I described above.

My friend’s experience was totally different. Her husband, put off by the man’s odd behavior, decided they should leave. He was uncomfortable and felt unsafe. They left the sanctuary and were in the lobby chatting with someone when they saw the man come back into the temple from a door that is normally locked. He was carrying a Husky tool bag (a small duffel bag). Alarmed, they quickly went down the stairs to the parking lot in front of the synagogue where a policeman was sitting in his cruiser keeping an eye on things. They told the policeman what they observed and urged him to go inside and make sure everything was all right. The policeman was reluctant to do so because he wasn’t supposed to intrude unless there was a call from inside the building. My friend and her husband were insistent. The policeman agreed and was walking toward the synagogue when another congregant came running toward them saying they needed help inside. Then the policeman ran in.

After the policeman ran in, my friend called 911 because she was concerned that a single policeman would be overmatched if the man had a weapon or weapons. The dispatcher assured her they were on it. She and her husband got in their car and went home.

As we discussed the incident, it was clear that my friend was very distressed. I understood that seeing the man come in with a duffle bag was very disturbing and I had not witnessed that part. If I had, I believe I would have done the same as she did in alerting the police. I also shared her concern about the door being unlocked.

Security at the temple has been a source of anxiety for years, not just as a result of the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric have flared up again and again over the years necessitating more elaborate security plans. There are volunteer ushers who greet congregants at the front doors (which are not locked) and stationed throughout the building. Their responsibility, as I understand it, is to greet members, help anyone who needs assistance, and keep an eye out (along the lines of ‘see something, say something.’) All other doors, other than the main entrance, are supposed to be locked. On ordinary days, when large numbers of people are not expected for services, even the front doors are locked, and you are either buzzed in or you have the code to punch in to gain entry. During holidays one or two police cruisers are stationed in the parking lot (last Tuesday there was only one).

While I agreed with my friend on some points, we had differences. She thought his behavior in the first instance, wandering about the sanctuary greeting everyone, merited more attention and perhaps a request that he leave. I wasn’t willing to go that far since at that point he hadn’t done anything wrong. My friend’s take was that a mentally ill person may be harmless, until they aren’t. My thought was that all people may be harmless, until they aren’t. How can we know?

The incident left me with so many questions:

What can the usher do? If I were ushering and a person came in with a duffel bag, would I ask them to leave it in their car? Would I ask them to explain why they needed it? Maybe I wouldn’t ask anything. Do we need metal detectors at the entrances of our houses of worship?

I can say with certainty that I do not believe that the answer is to arm the ushers!

If a person is acting oddly, is that enough of a reason to ask them to leave? What is odd behavior? I know it makes me uncomfortable if a person speaks too loudly for the circumstances, or exhibits vocal tics, or is seemingly disconnected, or highly emotional (without context).  That discomfort may correspond to an instinct that something is wrong or off, but that may not mean that the person is a danger to anyone. If we can’t know, do we err on the side of preserving our comfort (security) or the rights of that individual who may have a mental or physical disability? It is a painful choice to make. People struggling with these conditions are certainly deserving of compassion. As a society we don’t offer enough support in terms of treatment, prescription coverage or residential options.

Gary and I have processed this incident a few times since it happened. Yesterday we were discussing whether, if somehow we knew that the guy was going to get naked and run down the aisle, would we want him escorted out earlier. Gary said that he would – that he wouldn’t want us all subjected to that during Rosh Hashana services. I could see his point. On the other hand, if we could know that he wasn’t dangerous, was it really all that bad? Nobody got hurt. We both recognized, of course, that no one is clairvoyant and human behavior is unpredictable, so it was pointless to conjecture.

After my conversation with my friend, I wonder, if there was a congregation-wide conversation where these issues were discussed, would we be able to come to a meeting of the minds about the lessons learned from this incident? Would we agree on an approach for the future? Can we overcome our differences which stem from our respective values and fears? The frequency of mass shootings has frayed nerves and that makes it even more difficult to navigate these issues.

Please feel free to share your perspective by leaving a comment. Thank you.

roshhashanahimagecropped
symbols of Rosh Hashanah

4 thoughts on “A Disturbing ‘Happy New Year!’

  1. I can see both sides of yours and your friend’s opinions of this incident. Certainly seeing someone who was behaving somewhat oddly in possession of a bag of any size would be cause for alarm, even if it contained normal kinds of items. Sadly we don’t live in a world anymore where you can give a mentally ill person the benefit of the doubt.
    What appalled me the most? That when your friend spoke to the cop outside the Temple he had reservations about investigating instead of calling for backup. That he needed additional individuals to let him know there was a situation unfolding. His hesitation could have had tragic repercussions.
    Very glad things ended without incident.

    Like

  2. I must say that there is that voice inside my head-I hope inside all of us, that either tells us something feels safe or feels unsafe. And that instinct, that assessment, based on so many details that we process without really taking the time to really think about individually, leads to the bottom line safe or unsafe conclusion. As I saw this man walking around the synagogue, my inner voice said he is mentally ill,probably off his psychiatric meds, but he is not dangerous. As it turns out, he was more disturbed than I immediately appreciated based on what he subsequently did, but he never did anything that challenged the assessment that he was not dangerous.
    Clearly that is not how our friends felt. And, as much as anything else, this event makes clear to me how different each of our wiring is. Some of us are more or less afraid, more or less trusting, more or less inclined to get away from the very same situation. And that reality is challenging when our assessments are not based, cannot be based, on certainty.
    To me, there is no such thing as certainty with only occasional exceptions. We mostly are dealing with probability. Any congregant could be violent at any moment. They could bring a small explosive device in their tallis bags-some of which are quite large these days. That is extremely unlikely but the point I make is that we are stuck having to make these assessments in the absence of absolute certainty.
    Finally, like Linda, I was so sad for this individual. I felt concerned that he get to a place where he can get help and I never actually felt angry at him because I did not feel he was responsible for his crazy behavior. I also appreciated the rabbi’s response.
    The other side of the coin is that this event can serve as a learning experience so that we get our security more organized to be more effective. I feel that we are not a military installation and we will never achieve perfect security. But we also should recognize that risk is relative and the loss of compassion is one of the risks I do not want to easily take.
    thank you for the thought provoking blog post.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s