By Larry Gordon
As the manhunt for the remaining terrorist in Boston last week rolled into Friday, just about every shul in the city and the surrounding communities notified their membership that their shuls would be closed for Shabbos.
In fact, after conferring with the police-department brass in his capacity as the chaplain of the city of Boston, Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff issued the following statement:
“Boston law-enforcement authorities still have some hope that the lockdown will be lifted prior to the start of Shabbos. However, the situation is still extremely fluid and nothing is definite at this time, so with Shabbos approaching that hope is dwindling and becomes less likely to happen.
“In the absence of the lifting of the lockdown, and with a known, identified, dangerous, active, and heavily armed terrorist in the area, law-enforcement officials instruct that everyone should absolutely remain at home, both for their own safety and to keep public areas clear and allow full exclusive access for law-enforcement officers and operations which may suddenly shift location without warning.
“This is definitely an issue of sakonas nefashos, and halachah requires us to protect lives and not endanger our lives above other mitzvos. However, your own rav should be consulted for your individual case and shul, and rabbanim are asked to contact their local police precinct for direction and instruction before deciding for their particular shul and congregants.
“May HaKadosh Baruch Hu shelter, guide, and protect us and our entire community during Shabbos and the coming days.”
In the end, the lockdown was lifted about 90 minutes before the onset of Shabbos.
It was clearly an unprecedented situation. Tragedy had struck on Monday as bombs were detonated near the finish line of the internationally renowned Boston Marathon. As Rabbi Korff describes the marathon, it is a 26.2-mile target in Boston, which is a relatively small but very open city.
There was no warning or even any suspicion that something of this nature was about to take place. Usually the intelligence services of the police departments in major cities pick up hints from talkative friends of would-be terrorists or from phone or Internet chatter. But this time there was nothing.
Rabbi Korff, the Zvhil-Mezbuz Rebbe, is the one Jewish leader that is in constant close contact with both the police and fire department in the city. We spoke on Monday evening of this week about how he learned what had happened downtown and how he, as the chaplain of both the police and fire departments, was involved as events unfolded that day.
He says that there is a daily 1:50 p.m. Minchah minyan in his office, which also serves as the official office of the chaplain of the departments mentioned above. Usually, following the Minchah service he has an opportunity to meet with and speak with people seeking his advice and counsel, for sometimes as much as an hour. It was following those meetings that he was in his car when he first received a call from the police department and then immediately afterward from the fire department. The messages were somewhat cryptic; something was happening near the finish line of the marathon. There had been explosions and there were mass casualties. The rabbi says that he activated the lights on his car and sounded the siren as he raced to the scene.
I don’t know if any one of us, even in this post–9/11 era, can relate to this type of catastrophic event taking place near our homes. As far as its impacting on Jewish religious life, the closest recent thing that comes to my mind is this past autumn, during that first Shabbos after Hurricane Sandy, when shuls had to conduct services in the dark, by candlelight, or, as the case that I experienced, extra early so that people could get home prior to darkness setting in.
Difficulty and even disaster—we should not know from any of it—take on a different character once they begin to collide with the sacredness of Shabbos. I know a couple that lives in Boston that was planning on attending a bar mitzvah in Lakewood this past Shabbos. They called their rav, their parents, and others to ask advice about what to do. The answer was simple and yet unremarkable—there’s a danger on the streets and on the roads. Sit tight, stay home. And of course they did exactly that.
Rabbi Korff explains that when he arrived on the scene of the explosion it was just horrific. “Nothing can prepare you for something like this unless you have served in a war zone. There was panic and the people that could walk around were just stunned,” he said. Fortunately, the rabbi said, there was a well-equipped medical tent set up to deal with injured or dehydrated runners, and the makeshift medical center was instantly turned into a battlefield-like emergency room.
Luckily for those who were injured, a number of doctors were either running in the race or present to help with marathon-related injuries. In addition, Boston features some of the leading hospitals in the world located just a short distance from the finish line. “There is no question that lives were saved because of the presence of that medical tent,” the rabbi says.
And as City of Boston Police Chaplain, Rabbi Korff was consulted on the matter of putting the city under lockdown. Later the situation was referred to by the authorities as being “sheltered in place.” At the point that this decision was made, the police did not have the identities of the perpetrators yet, but at the same time investigators found indications that they were planning additional attacks.
Rabbi Korff said that within a few hours of the attack, the FBI brought into Boston some of the most advanced technological equipment used in crime situations like these. Once the authorities isolated the pictures of who they believed the attackers were, they went to work identifying them. The face-recognition technology did not come up with a name, so the decision was made to make the photos of the suspects public and then clear the streets, thereby protecting the people and making it increasingly difficult for the terrorists to move around amongst the population.
Additionally, law-enforcement personnel in Boston had to be able to move from one area to the next freely and without being inhibited by traffic. Rabbi Korff describes the scene as somewhat eerie. Mass transit came to a halt and taxis were pulled off the streets.
As Friday arrived, the authorities kept in touch with the rabbi and related to him that they believed the lockdown would be lifted prior to the arrival of Shabbos. The leaders were not specifically considering the needs of the significant Orthodox Jewish population, but rather Police Chief Ed Davis told Rabbi Korff that he was confident that the remaining terrorist would be captured and taken into custody before the onset of the Sabbath.
In the interim, people were locked in their homes mostly for their own safety. Yes, Shabbos was arriving and the stores that are usually bustling with activity in preparation for Shabbos were closed. As Friday progressed, the police shifted their focus and search to the nearby city of Watertown, where they believed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hiding. That’s why even though he was not yet captured, the decision was made to lift the citywide lockdown, while still urging residents to be watchful.
The timing allowed the shuls to open and have minyanim for Shabbos. Earlier in the week someone from Boston shared an e-mail from a young man who said that he was a ba’al kriah on Shabbos in three shuls. He was concerned at that point, before being fully aware of what was at stake, that if he was not able to move from shul to shul there would be no one to read the Torah for the different shuls. In the end he was able to do his job with ease.
As far as the food situation was concerned and the fact that the shomer Shabbos stores in Boston did not have time to open prior to Shabbos, the rabbi suggests that because it was just a couple of weeks after Pesach, it was more likely that people still had plenty of leftovers in their freezers so they would not go hungry over Shabbos.
As for the lesson learned, Rabbi Korff ponders for a moment and then says that perhaps the lesson here is that one should not wait until the latest possible moment to prepare for Shabbos. v
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