August 19, 2019

Coming to Terms With Terror in ‘The Last Heaven on Earth’

AHC Senior Rabbi Natti Friedler pays his respects at a makeshift memorial outside the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“We thought we were the last heaven on Earth but we woke up to a new reality.”

Rabbi Natti Friedler, senior rabbi of Auckland Hebrew Congregation (AHC) in New Zealand, is attempting to sum up the shock waves that have ricocheted through a country with a population of barely 5 million in the aftermath of the March 15 shootings at two mosques in Christchurch that killed 50 people and injured scores more.

Speaking with the Journal by telephone on Sunday afternoon, March 17 (Monday evening New Zealand time), the Israeli-born Friedler, who has been in New Zealand for the past 4 1/2 years, said for the country’s Jewish population, which is only between 8 and 10,000, the horrific attack on a minority group by an alleged white supremacist has left the community on edge.

“We very much felt like what happened in the [Tree of Life synagogue] Pittsburgh shooting,” he said. “God forbid there is another crazy attack. In Pittsburgh, the man was also a white [supremacist]. We were all shaken.”

Friedler explained that there are only four shuls in New Zealand (not counting separate, small Chabad centers). They are situated in the two main populated areas of the country: Auckland in the north and Wellington in the south. Friedler’s Orthodox AHC is the largest synagogue in the country, with approximately 600 members. He said in Christchurch, there’s just a Chabad rabbi that comes in the summertime. 

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the news spread that New Zealand closed its synagogues over Shabbat in solidarity with the Muslim community. However, Friedler said, the decision was made by the police, who feared for the Jewish community’s safety.

AHC is also home to Kadima elementary school and the only Jewish school in New Zealand. “We have the Jewish Community Security Group (CSG),” Friedler said, “and straight after the shootings they were in touch with the police. The police had to send most of their forces to Christchurch. Because [the police] couldn’t secure our shul, we had to close.”

The shul remained closed over the weekend and the school was shut down on Monday, March 18. By Monday evening, AHC and Kadima were given the all-clear to open their doors. 

“We’ve had two security guards outside the shul for at least the last 20 years,” Friedler said, “but the guards aren’t armed. They’re mostly a [deterrent]. Most police officers don’t have guns here, only those in special units.”
Now, however, Friedler said he believes these laws will be re-examined. “I think things are going to have to change in that regard,” he said. Friedler made his comments shortly after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised major gun reforms in the wake of the worst attack on New Zealand soil.

Although they had to keep the synagogue closed, Friedler held services over Shabbat in his own home. “The [New Zealand Jewish] community is 150 years old and this would have been the first time in the history of the shul had we not had services,” Friedler said. “That was very important for us and to say Am Yisrael Chai.”

So Friedler rushed into the shul to bring home siddurim, Chumashim and a sefer Torah. “We had 20 people on Friday night and around 50 people on Shabbat morning. As you can imagine, the Shabbat before Purim is a very busy one,” he said. 

The decision [to close synagogues] was made by the police, who feared for the Jewish community’s safety.

Given that New Zealand is part of the Commonwealth of Nations, the community recited the prayer for Queen Elizabeth II, the government and the people of New Zealand as it does every Shabbat. And because it was Shabbat Zachor — when the Jewish people remember Amalek — Friedler said, “We really felt like Amalek is still alive and kicking.”

Friedler hastily cobbled together his sermon about the power of Amalek and the connection to the Purim story and the greater world at large (see sidebar).

The importance of taking care of all people is something Friedler feels very strongly about. Over the years he has built up a strong relationship with the local Muslim community at Auckland’s Ponsonby mosque, just 10 minutes from AHC’s premises.

“About three years ago, we invited both the male and female mosque leaders on a special tour of our synagogue,” Friedler said. “We had a brand new sefer Torah written — the first ever by a local New Zealand scribe. We invited the mosque leaders to join us celebrating the dedication. They came and danced with the sefer Torah. It was incredible.”

On the Sunday after the attacks, Friedler, together with Rabbi Ariel Tal of the Wellington Jewish Community Centre sent the following letter to the imams of the mosques that were attacked in Christchurch.

Dear Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim and Imam Gamal Fouda 

The Jewish Community of New Zealand mourns the cold-blooded murder of the innocent worshipers at the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid in Christchurch. We condemn those responsible and offer our deepest sympathy to the grieving families. We pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded. 

We stand together against this horrific attack on the Muslim community of New Zealand. An attack on a mosque is an attack on a synagogue. It is an attack on the most sacred place both religions share. A holy place that should reflect our connection to God. We are all created in His image.

Instead of entering this place of worship in respect and reverence, a godless evil man took the lives of 50 innocent people. Our sages teach us that the person who saves one life is considered as if he had saved the entire world. By contrast, a person who takes one life is considered as if he has destroyed the entire world. So many worlds were destroyed on Friday. Our hearts cry out and we mourn with your families. 

We are all the children of Abraham; we commit to fighting darkness by adding more light to the world. Abraham was famous for his kindness and hospitality. These traits are key to both Islam and Judaism and to our entire world. Through kindness we can heal the world and bring peace to the whole human race. 

“We are all the children of Abraham. Abraham was famous for his kindness and hospitality. These traits are key to both Islam and Judaism and to our entire world. Through kindness we can heal the world and bring peace to the whole human race.”
— Rabbis Natti Friedler and Ariel Tal, NZ

May God heal the broken hearted and the bereaved families. 

We offer our prayers and support during this difficult time to the Muslim community and to every New Zealander. We are one and we are strong together. 

On March 20, Friedler joined a New Zealand Jewish delegation and made the 700-mile trek to the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. 

Friedler told the Journal, “Today we paid respect to the victims of the Christchurch massacre, and showed support and unity as the Jewish community in New Zealand to the bereaved families and the Muslim community in New Zealand. May their memory be a blessing to all the people of New Zealand.”

Heading back home to celebrate Purim, Friedler said, “We are going to speak with the teachers [at the school] and the children. We have to somehow explain how something like this can happen. We have to explain there is still evil in the world and we have to fight that but also our main goal is to be a light. The more we are kind to each other and our neighbors and other faith groups, we are bringing godliness to the world.”

There are also plans in the works to create a special fund for the families of the victims in Christchurch as part of matanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor) on Purim. 

This coming Shabbat there will be a special service, where local Muslim leaders will be invited to join. 

“We in New Zealand are basically the southernmost Jewish community in the world,” Friedler said. “But whatever we have here we really appreciate it. We’re small but vibrant. Evil can reach any corner of the world. Only by standing together and educating our children can we prevail and run out this darkness.”

Australian Jewry Confronts White Nationalism
It’s a little over 1,300 miles as the crow flies from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, to Christchurch, New Zealand. As an expat Sydneysider, I’m familiar with the good-natured rivalry between the Aussies and the Kiwis (as New Zealanders are affectionately known). 

However, in the wake of the March 15 shootings, the entire Australian-Jewish community has been reaching out to its Kiwi neighbors in solidarity, and the fact that the shooter hailed from New South Wales has hit home in the state best known for its glorious beaches and iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House. 

The Great Synagogue, located in the center of Sydney’s bustling business district, is the city’s oldest shul. Currently led by Chief Minister Rabbi Benjamin Elton (who hails from Manchester, England), the Orthodox synagogue serves around 550 families.

“The community is in shock and deep anguish,” Elton told the Journal in a phone conversation. “People are also very disturbed that it was an Australian who perpetrated [the attacks]. But there’s also a feeling of community solidarity,” he added.

While the community is still coming to terms with the attacks, Elton said the local Jewish Community Security Group (CSG) hasn’t increased its danger level. “They’re taking the view that things haven’t gotten substantially worse but [our shul] always has armed guards and quite often the police come round to check on us. We always take our security very seriously.” 

After the Friday shootings, Elton said he had no time to prepare a new sermon that Shabbat but during Shabbat memorial prayer services, “I mentioned the atrocity and said we were thinking about the victims and the survivors.”

“Free and democratic societies urgently need to do two things in response. First, we must examine and improve the way we conduct political debate… Secondly, our law enforcement agencies must take to heart the fact that the threat of terrorism does not emanate exclusively from one source.”
— The Executive Council of Australian Jewry


He did add, however, that he “dropped an allusion” into his Shabbat Zachor sermon. “We remember what Amalek did to us so I talked about Amalek in every generation. I said there were Nazis 80 years ago and we still have neo-Nazis with us today, including those behind the Christchurch attacks.”

Elton said he inserted those allusions “on the spot, because I think the spirit of Amalek doesn’t just apply to oppressing Jews but to all genocidal and cruel behavior.”

Heading into Purim, Elton said, “I think we’re able to compartmentalize. Purim doesn’t diminish the tragedy but the tragedy doesn’t mean we cancel Purim. The happiness and the tragedy just have to be held at the same time.”

Having worked at the Great Synagogue since 2015, Elton said over the years he has been very involved in interfaith work, attending meetings and Iftar dinners with the Grand Mufti of Australia, who’s the senior Sunni cleric, and he has taken part in countless interfaith discussions between Jews, Muslims and Christians, many of whom have become personal friends.

The Interfaith Service of Remembrance held at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney on March 17.
Photo by Jeremy Jones

On March 17, a huge interfaith service was held at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, which Elton attended. “It was an opportunity for us to pay our respects,” he said.

Moving forward, Elton said the lay leadership organization, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, is holding an additional prayer service for the victims and their families this week at their weekly meeting, and they’re also raising money to send to the community in Christchurch. “It’s not just words and prayers,” he said. “We’re sending practical assistance.” 

The Journal also reached out to Sydney-based Peter Wertheim, the co-executive officer of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), the peak organization representing Jews in Australia.

Wertheim directed the Journal to two timely pieces: an essay he wrote in August 2018 for the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Religion & Ethics section, about how law enforcement agencies have a history of being blindsided by far right groups. In his essay, he states: “Miniscule far-right political groups have for decades inhabited the murky fringes of Australian politics. The last ten years have seen a burgeoning of such groups. They represent every conceivable gradation of far-right political opinion, from anti-immigrant and anti-globalist groups who seek to “restore” Australian democracy, to secretive cabals of Hitler-saluting neo-Nazis who are intent on overthrowing it.”

The second piece, Wertheim noted, was “chillingly prescient.” It was a report compiled just last month by ECAJ’s Research Director Julie Nathan, who has been tracking and writing about far-right groups for several years. 

The New Zealand shooter wrote in his manifesto about the need for “White Replacement.” In the opening to her paper last month, Nathan wrote, “Little more than a year ago, far-right activists in Australia could reasonably accurately be divided into three ideological groupings: civic patriots, nationalists and racialists. Whatever they might be said to have in common, these groups differed fundamentally in their beliefs about race, religion and citizenship. But now, something far more sinister is going on. There has been a move further to the right by the civic patriots and nationalists, and a general convergence around the racialist myth of “White Replacement.”

Nathan goes on to say: “Such political exploitation of racism and religious bigotry is nothing new. It preys on fears about non-European immigration into Australia, and attempts to revive the old “White Australia” conviction that Australia should be almost wholly, if not fully, composed of those of European ethnicity and Christian culture. Even indigenous Australians are air-brushed out of the picture. Variants of this kind of “nativist” populism are percolating in Australia, and throughout the world.

The ECAJ issued a statement after the attacks that read, in part, “The ideology that drove this particular terrorist, known as the “white genocide” myth, which supposes that Europeans are being exterminated by non-European immigration and multiculturalism, has been invoked to justify the massacre of African-American worshipers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. It was invoked by the terrorist Anders Breivik in 2011 when he murdered 77 innocent people in Norway. And it was invoked again by the terrorist who massacred Jewish worshipers in a synagogue in Pittsburgh just last year.”

The statement also said, “We mourn with our Muslim brothers and sisters for what they have lost. For the desecration of their sanctuary. For the loss of their loved ones. For the deprivation of their sense of peace and security. We extend our deepest sympathies to the communities affected, to the people of Christchurch and to the Islamic community in Australia.”

“Such political exploitation of racism and religious bigotry is nothing new. It preys on fears about non-European immigration into Australia, and attempts to revive the old “White Australia” conviction that Australia should be almost wholly, if not fully, composed of those of European ethnicity and Christian culture.” — Julie Nathan

However, the ECAJ also issued a call to action, stating, “Free and democratic societies urgently need to do two things in response. First, we must examine and improve the way we conduct political debate. As the Nazi Holocaust and the mass crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia demonstrated all too clearly, genocide does not begin with killing. It begins with words. Political, community, religious and civil society leaders all have a duty to lead by example, by setting the right tone of discourse from the top.

Secondly, our law enforcement agencies must take to heart the fact that the threat of terrorism does not emanate exclusively from one source. The old saying that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance remains as true as ever.”

Purim As a Response to Christchurch Attack

March 18, 2019 / Adar II 11, 5779

Dearest members of the Jewish communities in Auckland and Wellington AHC, WJCC and wider Jewish community,

Purim is about eradicating Amalek from the world, fighting evil. On Friday, evil struck in Christchurch. A terrorist murdered 50 innocent Muslims and injured another 48 people. This is the manifestation of Amalek in our times, here in New Zealand. 

On Shabbat we read Parashat Zachor, reminding all of us that Amalek is still a relevant issue that terrorists and evildoers still lurk among our communities seeking to destroy Am Israel and any other communities that they target out of sheer hate and intolerance. 

Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and communities in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. Our hope and prayer is that this monstrous act will never happen again. Yet the question remains: What can we do as a Jewish community in these dark times? 

Our synagogues were closed over Shabbat, with each community having “pop-up” and impromptu minyanim at the rabbis’ houses. We mourn with the victims of Christchurch, and did not stop our prayers, especially in these dark times. Because we are in unprecedented times of national terror in New Zealand, this is the time to strengthen our communities. This is the time to come together. 

There is a deep insight into the Purim story that speaks to the power of coming together. King Achashverosh invited all residents of the Persian Empire to a party that lasted 180 days, catered to each and every person and culture in the 127 provinces — “Kirtzon Ish Va’Ish” — according to the will of each person and person. The Be’er Emunah explains that there is an extra letter in the second word — the letter “vav” in the word “Va’Ish.” The word “Va’Ish” are the same letters as the Hebrew word (“Ye’ush”) or despair. In other words, Haman and Amalek attack the Jewish people in order to create despair.  Mordechai and the Jewish people are the antithesis of Haman and create hope and strength wherever they go. Mordechai fights evil and ultimately defeats Haman. 

This Purim, let’s strengthen the Jewish communities in New Zealand and show our solidarity for the residents of this amazing country. We will raise a campaign to strengthen the victims of Christchurch through our Matanot La’Evyonim, our Purim gifts, and make a statement that terror, fear and despair will not prevail, hope and love will.  

We encourage all of our members and wider Jewish community to show up for our Purim events in Auckland and Wellington, and will publicize it with the hashtag #ShowupforPurim. Just as Queen Esther ordered Mordechai when Haman’s threat to eradicate the Jewish people was imminent — go and gather all of the Jews. So, too, we will gather in these dark times and strengthen our community. We will have a prayer session for the victims of the attack during Ma’ariv on Purim night in each synagogue, on Wednesday, March 20, and will celebrate the holiday of Purim in a united stance to stand up to Amalek, stay strong and never despair in our faith and right to our religious freedom and any religious freedom in this country.  

Purim Sameach,

Rabbi Natti Friedler
Senior Rabbi, Auckland Hebrew Congregation

Rabbi Ariel Tal
Senior Rabbi,
Wellington Jewish Community Centre