I am not the most observant person in the world. But I think that makes me the perfect person to speak here tonight. I believe the events that transpired on the morning of January 12 affected me more than anybody else.
You see, in 9th grade I made the decision to distance myself from my religion. I wanted to assimilate, and I believed that going to a non-Jewish high school in my hometown of St. Louis was the easiest way to do that. I didn't wear a kippah, and I tried to act the same as everybody else. The result was that I was miserable. So miserable in fact, that I decided to return to a Jewish school, which is how I ended up here in Memphis.
So when I woke up on Saturday morning, and was told that our Torah was vandalized, the very symbol of our religion, I took this to be a direct hit at me. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t fearful for my life (like some articles may tell you), but I was mad. I was mad because this was a directed hit at my religion, a religion that I was recently reconnected with.
It began when I was rudely woken up by my friend Gabe. He informed me to get dressed quickly for prayers, because we had been vandalized. When he told me this, I laughed. I thought some other teenagers staying at the hotel with us probably threw our stuff around, perhaps even spray painted some things on the wall. I was so wrong.
While getting dressed for prayers, I noticed two police cars outside our room’s window. At that point I realized something was up. I got dressed, and ran downstairs. When I reached the lobby, I saw the image of police officers and hotel personnel talking to each other. I felt like I was on an episode of NCIS.
When I reached our prayer room, to my surprise, there were two police officers in front of the door, guarding it. They directed me to the new prayer room, where I walked into an unfamiliar sight. It was a sight that I never experienced before in my life, and a sight that I will probably never see again in my life. I saw a Shabbat prayer service taking place without a Torah. It would be like playing football without the actual football. Or using a watch that couldn't tell time. Nonetheless, we continued to pray huddling around in groups, with the few prayer books we had available to us.
It surprised me to see just how scared and anxious everybody was. At this time, we had no idea who had committed the crime. It was eerie to see my classmates so scared. Take my friend Bryan, a six foot, two hundred pound man. Before January 12, I had never seen Bryan in fear. On Saturday morning, I found Bryan sitting alone in deep thought, biting his nails. He was asking questions like, “what if the person who did this has a gun?” Bryan was not alone. Every person in that room on Saturday morning was scared at some level. It was the feeling of not knowing what comes next. We simply did not know how the scenario would play out.
We were frequently updated during prayers by our Dean, Rabbi Perl. We were told to stay calm, and listen to the authorities. We were naive children stuck in a room surrounded by police officers. Now I have never been to prison, but I would assume prison feels a lot like this.
But here I stand today, nearly one month later. Our Torah is in the custody of the Jackson Police Department, along with our prayer books. And still one question bothers me. Since we don’t have our Torah, our prayer books are ruined, and we were forced to change our trip in order to stay safe, didn’t the person who vandalized us achieve his goal? Hasn't he walked out of this incident the winner? He instilled in us a sense of fear and forced us to give over our most valuable possession, the Torah. In my eyes, he won.
So I asked Rabbi Perl this same question, thinking I would stump him. Instead of stumping him, he responded with a pretty profound answer. To put it simply, he told me that everything I told him was in fact correct. Yes, we don’t have our torah, we don't have our prayer books, and our trip was altered. However, we will get our torah back, we will get our prayer books back, and we still had an awesome time.
After talking to Rabbi Perl, I realize that this incident was an opportunity for us to feel what many people unfortunately feel every day. We were discriminated against, because of our beliefs. I’ve heard about African Americans and gay people being discriminated against my whole life, but I was never able to relate. Today I can stand here and tell you with 100% certainty that I, along with all of my classmates, were victims of discrimination. We were in the line of fire of anti-semitism. It reminded me of the stories that my grandparents told me about their grandparents in Europe. Today, it feels so real.
Yet here we are today, united together. And I see two roads we can take. Road one leads us down a path where we continue to mourn and feel sorry for ourselves. It’s a path in which we continue to be filled with bitterness and hatred. It’s an easy path that takes almost no effort. Or we can take road number two. This road is a path that involves a lot of effort. It is a path that forces us to forgive and move forward. Its a path that our religion has gone down countless times. Its a path that my great great grandparents went down. And its a path that I am going to go down.
Here I am, in Memphis Tennessee, two years after I decided to assimilate and go to a non-Jewish high school. And I have never been prouder to be a Jew. Thank you.