Mohammed Merah and the Jewish school shooting in France : A religious response

March 21, 2012

To the Jews of France: We are one with you.

At approximately 8 .m. Monday, a horrific attack occurred on innocent Jewish children and their teachers as they were about to begin their school day in the French city of Toulouse.

A single gunman, Mohammed Merah, allegedly killed four people: Rabbi Jonathan Sandler along with his three- and six-year- old sons, Gabriel and Arieh, as well as seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego, the daughter of the school’s principal.

The whole world is horrified by the senseless brutality and evil of the attack.

But as Jews we feel a special pain.

As Jews we view the attack upon the Jewish school in Toulouse as an attack upon all Jews everywhere in the world.

The school’s name is Ozar Hatorah, which literally translates as the Treasure House of Torah. The people killed that day were treasurers and guardians of the Torah. The rabbis teach that there is nothing as pure as children like those in Toulouse who are studying the Torah. For example, when the messiah will arrive, everyone is supposed to interrupt their activities to greet him, except that is the children who are studying Torah. Nothing surpasses the purity of their activity.

Rabbi Jonathan Sandler was a 30-year-old man who dedicated his entire life to the study and teaching of Torah. His life was focused on Jewish community outreach and spreading the teachings of the Talmud. According to the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, the Sandler family moved to France from Israel last year to serve as emissaries of the the Kollel Zichron Shimon, where Rabbi Sandler had himself taught and studied Torah. His role in France was to prepare the next generation of French students to become Jewish teachers and rabbis. 

When he was murdered, the students of Ozar Hatorah were not the only people who lost a teacher. The entire Jewish people also lost a teacher.

The French Jewish community has approximately 750,000 Jews and is the third largest Jewish community in the world, outside of Israel and America. 

But when an attack like this happens all Jews instantly feel like the attack could have happened upon any of us.

That morning as soon as I heard of the attack I immediately thought of the safety of the Jews in our own community and e-mailed D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier to inform her of the news. At morning prayers, we literally cried as we recited Psalms on behalf of the victims of the attack. But our thoughts also turned to the safety of our own children in our Jewish schools in the area. If an evil attack like this could happen to a Jewish school in France, it could happen to a Jewish school anywhere in the world.

However, our physical safety and security were not our primary concerns that morning.  It was secondary to the sense of pain that we felt at the attack upon our brothers and sisters. 

The Talmud teaches that the Jewish people are comparable to conjoined twins.  If you pinch one arm of the twin then the other twin will feel the pinch as well.  So too, if there is an attack upon a Jewish school anywhere in the world then everywhere in the world, we Jews feel the pain.

Richard Prasquier, the president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, said that now there is great fear amongst the Jews of France. "But we have to tell them we should not surrender to fear," he said.

As the innocent and pure bodies of the murdered victims are buried on Wednesday in Israel our message to the Jews of France and to the families and friends of the victims is clear: We are one with you. You are in our prayers and in our minds.  May you one day, somehow, find peace and may your killer speedily be brought to justice!

Shmuel Herzfeld is a rabbi at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue, in the District and author of “Fifty-Four Pickup: Fifteen-Minute Inspirational Torah Lessons.”

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