Rabbi Daniel Plotkin, who grew up in Brown Deer and attended Congregation Shalom, once served as the first student rabbi – the first anybody with a title that had rabbi in it – for Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.
For him, the taking of hostages there on Shabbat, Jan. 15, 2022, was surreal and horrifying. It was also a reminder that we must stand with others against hate.
We must stand up for ourselves and for others who face hatred and bigotry, he said, after spending some time reviewing social media posts online. “Those trying to stoke hate as a result of this incident, or any other incidents, are not being helpful,” he said.
All four hostages at the Congregation Beth Israel Reform synagogue in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area were reportedly out alive and safe on Saturday evening. This followed a 12-hour standoff with an armed assailant. The incident had Jews worldwide affixed to their televisions and phones, awaiting drips of news.
The ordeal is a terrible moment in an innocent congregational story. Congregation Beth Israel began in 1998 as a community chavurah. It officially affiliated with the Reform movement in the summer of 1999, with 25 member families.
About two years later, a not-yet-ordained Plotkin arrived to provide rabbinical services part-time for one year. He was the first of four student rabbis who would serve in succession until Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who would later be one of the hostages, arrived to lead the congregation.
The congregation rented space in a church for services. Plotkin remembers being shown the land that would one day become the site of Congregation Beth Israel’s current building.
Plotkin recalls that at the time, the congregation’s character straddled the Reform and Conservative movements, though 20 years later he can’t know if that’s still the case. He said it was his role to find a way to make the Reform/Conservative mix work for all.
“I wasn’t in school with (Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker),” he said. “But I’ve gotten to know him over the years from different conferences and events, because of our shared connection to the congregation.”
Inspired by Shalom rabbis
The incident has Plotkin thinking about the conflict inherent in seeking safety and being welcoming.
“It’s a strong Jewish value to have our tents open to others,” he said. “That’s told to us through the stories of Abraham, through stories of our people wandering in the desert. But at the same time, even in those stories, there are people who wanted to do us harm. And so finding that balance is a very difficult thing to do.”
He noted that his current congregation often has an armed security guard present.
Plotkin joined his current congregation, Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland, in 2016. He leads the religious school program, and he says he has found great reward in focusing on education, rather thatn pulpit service. “Rabbi,” after all, means “teacher.”
“The inspiration from that really does go back to my time in Milwaukee, at Congregation Shalom in particular,” he said. “It was getting to know and spend a lot of time with Rabbi Stanley Schickler and Rabbi Greg Wolfe, who both served in that role of Rabbi educator for Congregation Shalom. Both really inspired me and showed me a way that a rabbi could be that was not necessarily the head of a congregation but doing really important work. That’s why I turned in the direction I did.”
Plotkin was last in the Milwaukee area over Thanksgiving weekend. Plotkin’s parents, Jerold and Bonnie, live in Glendale.
“Anytime I’m back in town, we’ve got to hit the big spots,” Plotkin said. “I always stop at Kopp’s.”
Unfortunately, the Milwaukee Bucks were out of town, said Plotkin, who interviewed over the weekend while wearing a Milwaukee Brewers sweatshirt. “My son is a humungous Bucks fan,” he said.
They went for a walk around the Fiserv Forum and Plotkin bought his son Ari, 15, a championship winter hat.
On the Texas incident, Plotkin noted that he also has seen “outreach and support coming from so many different directions, that our battle is not against any other group, but it’s against extremism that drives people toward violence. And it doesn’t matter if it’s coming from the right or the left, because Jews have recently been victimized from both sides.”
“All we can do is make sure that an incident like this isn’t an excuse for directing hate toward others … it’s remembering that we have our differences as Jews, but in the eyes of antisemites who truly want to hurt us, Jews are Jews are Jews,” he said.
“We’ve got to remember to care for one another, no matter what our internal differences are.”