War on terrorism numbs us to the war in our back yards

September 10, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

OUTSIDE THE Beth Am Synagogue, 2501 Eutaw Place, four uniformed city police officers offered a comforting presence across an anxious weekend. On Sunday morning, one of them pointed to two large signs that stood like sentries for all those arriving to mark Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.

Here are the things, the signs declared, that cannot be brought into the synagogue this year: Packages. Large pocketbooks. Diaper bags. Strollers.

Once associated purely with childhood innocence, diaper bags and strollers are now seen as potential transporters of doom. Who knows? And in the current climate, during the anniversary week of the terrorist attacks, who wants to take a chance?

Early Sunday morning, Richard Rosenthal emerged from a car and stood at the front steps of Beth Am with a shofar in his hand. He is an attorney and, for the past 25 years, has blown the traditional shofar - the ram's horn - to help usher in the new year.

"Those signs," somebody said. "We're so nervous."

"Have you been to the great synagogue of Rome?" Rosenthal replied. He glanced at the four police officers nearby, none with exposed weapons. "They have guards with machine guns outside. Have you been to Paris? They have uniformed guards and barbed wire around the synagogues. In Rome, you go to Friday night services and they search you before you can enter the synagogue. In America, we're just catching up to Europe."

The shofar in Rosenthal's hand had the usual bend in the middle. The bend is supposed to represent how the human heart, in true repentance, bends before God. And the ram's horn itself reminds the pious how the Old Testament's Abraham, about to offer his child Isaac in sacrifice, was granted a reprieve and sacrificed a ram instead.

But in places around the world - in the Middle East, and in New York and at the Pentagon, and in so many of the forlorn, battered streets around the Beth Am Synagogue - the Jews may blow the ram's horn but the people of all the world's faiths continue to sacrifice each other's children.

This year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - the solemn Jewish holidays commemorating the birth of the world and the hour of supreme human penitence - surround tomorrow's one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

As the first of Sunday's worshippers arrived at Beth Am, a car radio tuned to WBAL broadcast the sermon of a minister from the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. He talked about the American response to the attacks: "Patriotism surrounded by fear," he called it. "Ripples of grief and fear, and then America's quick and destructive response to the attacks. Even now, the president threatens additional retaliation.

"But why," the minister asked, "are we not as upset over terrorism in our own community? Why are we numb to the crime and terror" in our own neighborhoods?

He might have been thinking about Eutaw Place, where Beth Am still draws the faithful but the surrounding streets continue a decades-long death march. There were four police at the synagogue, but an entire department can't change this neighborhood eaten away by drug traffic, where once-charming homes are boarded up and rotting, and trash is dumped in yards and fouls the air across hot Baltimore summers.

So the president prepares for another war in the Middle East, and the wars in this country's neighborhoods, in our own back yards, will remain afterthoughts while we numb ourselves to their destruction.

We have bigger wars to fight, always. A year ago, a country grown complacent after a decade of peace and economic boom found itself jolted into new international realities. Who knew we could feel so threatened? So we put guards and metal detectors at office buildings and airports, and station police officers outside synagogues where a shofar is blown in peace and repentance offered for any sins of the past year.

A couple of days after last year's attacks, I went to New York to write a few newspaper columns. A cousin by marriage, Vita Marino, had been in her office in the second World Trade Center building when the attacks came.

I went to the apartment she had shared with her husband, Jonathan Dodge, and their two little daughters. Jonathan is Jewish; Vita was Italian-Catholic. Theirs was part of the mix by which we Americans sometimes define ourselves, and believe ourselves special: that we look for the best in each other, and do not let race or religion stand in the way of honest love.

I found Jonathan on the street near their apartment. He and the girls were still awaiting final word on Vita, but it seemed merely a formality.

"What can I say?" I asked.

"Yisgadal, v'yiskadash," he said.

They are the opening words to the Hebrew prayer of mourning. Now, one year after the attacks, we mourn the loss of loved ones, and a way of life that seemed far safer than it was.

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