Rabbi Is Held Up at Westchester Synagogue

On Sunday afternoon, Nov. 30, as he worked on his computer in hisoffice at B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester, Rabbi MichaelBeals saw a man he didn’t recognize walking through the synagogueparking lot. The rabbi waved, thinking the man might be a homelessperson en route to the congregation’s food bank or arriving early forthe evening bingo game. Instead, a few minutes later, the man burstinto the rabbi’s office, a nylon stocking covering his face and a guntrained on Beals.

“This is a stickup,” the robber said in a nervous, angry voice.”Give me your money.”

“It sounded so like television, I couldn’t believe it,” Beals, 34,said a week after the incident.

Not satisfied with the money inside Beals’ wallet, the man cockedhis gun, threatening to kill the rabbi if he didn’t hand over thecontents of the synagogue safe. Beals, who was installed at B’naiTikvah barely three months ago, led the intruder to the temple officeand opened some drawers to show him there wasn’t any money. Therobber forced Beals to lie face down on the carpet, which was stillwet from a recent cleaning. At that point, the rabbi said, “I thoughtthat was it.” He said the “Shema,” thinking of Rabbi Akiva, who hadalso recited the prayer as he was martyred by the Romans in Jerusalem2,000 years ago. Beals couldn’t believe his ears as he heard therobber close the synagogue’s front door on his way out. The rabbi laythere for a while, fearing the man would return. Then he called 911.

Sadly, this is not the first time he has been mugged. About fiveyears ago, when he was a rabbinical student, he and his wife, Elissa,whom he was dating at the time, were accosted in the Pico-Robertsonarea. It was Shabbat, and Beals had no money on him. But hiswife-to-be had the presence of mind to throw the mugger her purse.”She certainly saved my life,” he said.

Beals, still shaken from his second brush with death, said that hedidn’t want readers of this newspaper or his congregants to get theidea that B’nai Tikvah wasn’t safe. The holdup is the first suchincident in 50 years at the shul, and security measures are beingbeefed up. “This synagogue is very secure, and Westchester itself isconsidered one of the safest areas in Los Angeles and a verydesirable place to live,” he said.

Beals received comfort from temple members and colleagues in thedark days that followed the holdup. A group of clergy from theWestchester-Ladera Ministerial Association, to which the B’nai Tikvahrabbi belongs, formed a prayer circle around him two days after theevent and spontaneously prayed over the rabbi, thanking God for himand even praying for the soul of the robber. Beals, who was theJewish voice in an international AIDS day in the South Bay, realizedin the midst of a “Misheberach,” the Jewish prayer of healing, thathe was praying not only for those with AIDS but to be healed himself.

Many congregants have sent the rabbi gifts and cards or havecalled to comfort him. The outpouring helped Beals realize thatsometimes the healer needs to be healed himself — and that hisexperience, as horrible as it has been, will make him more sensitiveto the suffering of others.

“Sometimes, it helps to know the person comforting you is also agriever,” he said.

In his Friday-night sermon this week, Beals planned to relate hisown tale to the biblical story of Dina, the parasha for the week.Dina, Jacob’s daughter, is raped by a prince who then asks her fatherfor her hand in marriage. In revenge for his act, the prince iskilled by Jacob’s sons, who also slaughter others in the village.What occurred to Beals in the wake of his own victimization was thatthe Torah and the rabbinical commentaries never talk about Dina’sfeelings about what has happened to her. Instead, the story conveysthe idea that the rape is Dina’s punishment for her alluring dress,and the killing of her attacker and the villagers is her brothers’revenge for the wrong done them, not her.

“I wasn’t physically raped, thank God. But my well-being wasassaulted,” Beals said. “Dina was a silent victim, but I refuse to besilent. I don’t want to be self-indulgent, but I want to know whatfrom my experience can help others, especially people who aremourners.”

In a sense, the rabbi said, he feels like a mourner too. “I’mmourning my feeling of well-being and safety.”

So far, the suspect has not been found, and Beals doubts he willbe. But the rabbi remains comfortable with his choice of theWestchester pulpit.

“One of the reasons I chose this synagogue is that the people areso warm, caring and loving,” he said. “That’s why I don’t have acompelling need to go to a counselor, because they are showing me somuch support.”

B’nai Tikvah will have a healing service on Tuesday, Dec. 30, at 7p.m., at which Rabbi Beals will lead a support group for victims ofviolent crime. For more information, call (310) 645-6262.

Michael Beals