After the deadly Denmark terrorist attack in February, writer Jordan Hiller got on a flight to Copenhagen with a suitcase full of 400 hamantaschen.
There is an old joke about Jewish holidays. That they are all composed of the same three elements: They tried to kill us. We were saved. Let’s eat! Not easy to argue the contrary, but no holiday is so deliberate and calculating in this agenda as Purim. Purim is when we take a moment, no matter our national circumstance, to look our bloodthirsty, irrationally vicious enemies in the eyes and say, “We know you hate us and may even have killed a bunch of us, but we aren’t going anywhere. In the end, you will be blotted from the narrative of history. We are sustained and sustaining. You are another footnote in our prodigious march to destiny.”
If the thematic ties that bound our mission to Copenhagen and the imminent holiday of Purim were not sufficiently apparent, we had a suitcase filled with four hundred hamantaschen to remind us.
We landed at noon on Tuesday, February 24th, after a seven hour flight; a flight that offered seven different kinds of meals, none kosher. A flight that touted ambient lighting and a brand new state of the art 3D flight pattern map. When scrolling over the map’s Middle East from the default distance, the names of several countries appeared. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the West Bank. After zooming in a bit more, Gaza Strip popped up. It took additional magnification to allow for the seemingly reluctant label of Israel to fade into view. So, with our destination being an alleged hotbed of anti-Semitism, the flight kept us focused.
We were picked up by a cuddly old Polish Jew named Jan, sent by Rabbi Yitzi Loewenthal of Chabad Denmark. Jan, in broken English, described to us the dangers of being an identifiable Jew in the city and how things had grown exponentially worse since his arrival twenty years earlier.
Being under the radar Jews was not an option. Rabbi Gedaliah Oppen of HAFTR High School was insistent we walk the streets, see the sights, and visit the Jewish community, as loud and proud Jews. And besides, the Rabbi in the baseball cap trick never managed to fool anyone. Quite the opposite, as was explained by Yuliya Orenbakh, a neighbor who days earlier had agreed to join the mission. She grew up in Minsk, going from school to school, being forced to declare each new semester her nationality. She always said, somewhat defiantly, “Jew”, and she took the name calling and harassment that went along with it. But that abuse subsided after she stood up for herself. She told me, it was the Jews who tried to pass as “Russians” and hide their Judaism that never heard the end of it. They were the ones most aggressively targeted and wound up constantly fighting for acceptance.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that, besides Rabbi Oppen, the only two people who dropped everything to join our mission were two women born outside of the United States into situations that mirrored the Europe of today (the other woman, another neighbor, was Tatyana Tcheka). Both women were born into environments that made it impossible for a Jew to live openly as a Jew. To practice their religion in security and comfort. Tatyana was overheard saying to someone in synagogue on the Shabbat prior to our departure, that if it were not for American Jews rallying, taking dangerous trips to the USSR, and basically internalizing the plight of fellow Jews far away, she would have never gotten out.
Rabbi Oppen was the surprise. Someone I learned a lot from and emulated two decades earlier when he was a young Rabbi in my community, but had fallen out of touch with. And there he was, out of the blue, responding to my open invitation. In his determination to join, he epitomized the one-nation-one-heart philosophy that I had been on the brink of grasping. I saw it in both his decision to come along and the clarity with which he reached that decision, but more-so his perspective once we arrived. Although our mission was undoubtedly a worthwhile endeavor at its raw essence, it was his involvement that allowed it to reach full bloom. With Jan driving and the group scrambling to map out an itinerary, Rabbi Oppen remarked, wearing his black hat, yarmulke, coat, and tie, “I’m walking around just like this. And we are going wherever we want to go.” He didn’t give us the choice to hide or be ashamed, and that limitation was the tremendous gift I had not expected.
The Bat Mitzvah
I had come up with the Copenhagen idea the night after Dan Uzan, a’h, was murdered while standing as a volunteer guard outside the Bat Mitzvah celebration of Hannah Bentow. I read two articles that President’s Day Monday which combined to stir something inside lying dormant. One article described, in passing, Hannah telling her mother that she regretted having her Bat Mitzvah because of what happened to Dan. The other analyzed the tragedy in light of the fact that not a single Danish Jew was killed during the Holocaust. Not one. In Nazi occupied Denmark. The tales of Danish loyalty to their Jewish subjects and fastidiousness against Nazi cruelty were legendary. So, the editorial summed up, not a single Jew was killed at the hands of anti-Semitism from 1935-1945, but in 2015, one was. It was a glaring wake-up call. Well, another glaring wake-up call.
But it was Hannah, the twelve year old and her justifiable misery, that stuck with me. That dug in. I had just celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of my own daughter. We lived in a community where Bat Mitzvahs were planned and crafted with excess and abandon without a second thought. Book the hall and book the caterer. No one ever asked whether you remembered to book the security. And here was a family in the overwhelmingly non-observant, but very traditional few thousand strong Denmark Jewish community attempting to give their daughter a Bat Mitzvah to remember. A fleeting Jewish experience in a world where such moments were precious and rare. And the risk was there from day one. Doing anything outwardly Jewish was a risk in Copenhagen as it had become in many a cosmopolitan European city. But the Bentows valued the occasion and made sure to mark the milestone. For themselves, for Hannah, and for their community.
And in the final analysis, half the party was spent with music, laughter, and the warmth of a vibrant heritage, and the second half was spent cowering in a safe room after a friend and beloved son of the community was shot and killed while standing outside unarmed, trying to protect his people.
On that Monday night, the story played out in my head like a recurring nightmare. For some reason it felt more personal than usual. But there was more to it than the Bat Mitzvah connection. There were particulars and dynamics that set Copenhagen apart. It was clear from the outset, that unlike most traumas and atrocities we read about daily, this one seemed to have a practical fix. No, the pervasive anti-Semitism and strain of radical Islam infecting Europe could not so easily be remedied, but Hannah could come to one day not regret her Bat Mitzvah. That could be accomplished. It wasn’t too big to tackle, and therefore paralyzing. It was a goal within attainable reach.
Over the course of the next week the trip was planned, a coordinated effort with Rabbi Loewenthal, whom we were able to get in touch with via a friend and the head of our shul’s security team, Eli Chaikin. Eli’s father, the current Chief Rabbi of Belgium, is the former Chief Rabbi of Denmark. Eli was actually born in Copenhagen.
Yuliya and Tatyana joined up right away. Their reason for joining was never discussed outright, but it was nice to have immediate tangible support. It compelled the idea forward. The plan, in its inception, was to go, visit the Bentows with gifts and messages of love and support for Hannah, and show her that there was a huge, caring Jewish nation out there that considered her their daughter, sister, and friend. To relate that we all wanted her to grow up a proud and strong Jewess despite the isolation she may feel at her dwindling outpost of Judaism under siege. To drive home the point that what happened to Dan was not her fault and it was in no way connected to her becoming Bat Mitzvah.
The plan was to publish a book of messages, mostly from recent Bat Mitzvah girls who could speak to Hannah in a personal way; as many as we could gather in a week. And to supplement the book with gifts from the family of strangers she didn’t know she had. Thank God for email. Over two hundred messages came in, from High Schools in New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Long Island, and then messages from Jews all over New York, Florida, Israel, and Switzerland. The gifts poured in as well. At the end of each day leading up to our departure, I would find bags and cases filled with stuffed animals, bracelets, charms, and necklaces; some with notes, some without.
At the same time, myself and an old friend, Andrew Harary, were working on a second book, one less enjoyable to compile and edit. A book of messages, mainly from fellow synagogue security volunteers (Andrew and I were serving in our respective communities of Englewood and North Woodmere), to comfort the Uzan family. Those came in steadily as well. Dan’s security volunteer brothers (and many others without security volunteer connections) wrote words of compassion to Dan’s family. Letters infused with a palpable rage and sadness.
What had begun as a simple idea to brighten the day and change the mindset of Hannah Bentow had evolved. Now added was the secondary, yet equally imperative task, of making sure the Uzan family knew Dan would never be forgotten. That he was a hero and inspiration for dozens of volunteers standing outside their synagogues in freezing temperatures, blazing heat, or drenching downpours. A common sentiment amongst the messages was that Dan would always be standing alongside his fellow security volunteers; the guardian angel of guardian angels.
And then, upon arrival, as Rabbi Oppen challenged us all to walk the city of Copenhagen with our Judaism on our sleeves, the full gravity and potential of our trip was manifest. Beyond the solidarity visits, we would be making a statement by simply walking together as Jews.
Like many we encountered throughout Copenhagen, Rabbi Loewenthal was moved and amazed by our intentions, and we would have been lost without him. He was instrumental to our success. Whatever skepticism or disbelief he may have felt upon first hearing about our trip through emails read most assuredly amidst the chaos taking place on his home front, those reservations disappeared and were replaced by incredible support and enthusiasm.
Hamantaschen, Letters and Tears
A day before we were set to leave, he asked if we would possibly bring four hundred hamantaschen with us; enough to satisfy the community and their Purim party. It was another unexpected, thrilling development. A week earlier, our community had no connection to that of Denmark other than our faith, and now they’d be enjoying the hamantaschen we were privileged to provide.
Jan took us to our hotel, which was a fifteen minute walk to the Great Synagogue of Denmark, the building outside of which Dan was shot and killed.
Everywhere we went, we received looks. Not stares, but looks and attention. We were Jews in a city on edge due to their increasing Islamic extremist problem. A problem that came to ahead only days earlier in a violent outburst that left three dead, including a terrorist. In the wake of the attack, the Jewish community had received unwavering support from its Danish neighbors and government. (video) Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was visibly emotional at Dan’s funeral, dabbing tears from her eyes. She called the murder of Dan an attack on Denmark. This was not France. There was no qualifying or veiled justification on the part of media or leadership, separating the deaths of Charlie Hedbo cartoonists and the Jews murdered on the same day. Dan’s death was a Danish death, not just a Jewish one. Thousands marched for Dan or left flowers and basketballs outside the Great Synagogue (Dan played for the Hoersholm 79ers, a Danish basketball club). So the looks we received were partially curious, but mainly of concern and compassion.
Rabbi Loewenthal picked us up at 2:30 PM. We met him in the street with boxes of hamantaschen, hugs, and renewed energy. Our group had increased by one. My brother-in-law, Philippe Hasgall of Zurich, Switzerland met us at the hotel as it was a short flight for him and a rare chance for us to get together.
The five of us packed into Rabbi Loewenthal’s van and drove for about twenty-five minutes to the Uzan home; a ranch style structure painted light orange, which sat outside the city on a quiet residential block. Bodil and Mordachai Uzan had gotten up from shivah that morning and, personally speaking, I feared imposing, perhaps extending their acute grief. But our reception was nothing but one of other-worldly appreciation. Simply put, we were greeted as long lost family. As I embraced Mordachai who met us at the door with a weak smile and a broken spirit, I said to him two words in Hebrew translated as “you are my brother.” I thought it would best explain why we were there. Bodil was next to embrace us and I regretted letting go before she was ready, accidentally cutting short the longer moment she needed. But I made up for it on our way out.
We were lead into the house by Mordachai, who came across as serious and elegant. He was born in Israel and Hebrew was his preferred language. Dan’s uncle and sister, Andrea, were there as well. Our quick game of Jewish geography revealed that Andrea was acquainted with Philippe’s brother. We sat in a dim room off the kitchen. The entire house was dim, quaint, and the sense of loss was everywhere. It was painfully evident something was missing. On a high-rise bed behind us were piled letters, flowers, and more memorial basketballs. We sat around a table set for us with snacks and drinks, a bottle of Chivas Regal whiskey at the center. Once again they expressed their deepest gratitude for our trip and marveled at our presence. Many times that day we were asked, “When are you leaving?” And as we answered, quite matter-of-factly, “Tomorrow,” the reaction was always awe, as if it confirmed our bizarre version of the truth. We certainly didn’t feel awesome. We didn’t feel special. At most, we felt fortunate that we were able to be there and that our plans were slowly but surely coming to fruition.
Over the course of a half hour or so, we did our best to comfort them. We showed them the book of messages from Dan’s fellow volunteers. We stressed our kinship and stated emphatically that the entire Jewish world mourned with them and that Dan would never be forgotten. Mordachai spoke in Hebrew with Rabbi Oppen about the terrible situation in Denmark. He did not hope for revenge or wish evil upon the Muslim community of Denmark. They lived in a mixed community. Their Muslim neighbors had paid many consolation visits since Dan’s death. Like many of us, he just prayed for a change of heart. Where Muslims (and Jews) could, across the board, teach tolerance and peace and stop the cycle of violence and isolation. So that another generation would not be lost. We filled our shot glasses with whiskey and Rabbi Loewenthal made a l’chaim to Dan, may his memory be a blessing. We left with more hugs and tears and see-you-laters since Dan’s memorial service in the Great Synagogue was only hours away.
From there we hustled over to the Bentow’s apartment, which was in the city proper. Mette and Clous, Hannah’s parents, met us at the door with the same warmth as Bodil and Mordachai, but they were able to smile and laugh and they exuded a radiant positive aura. They may have been bent by the terror attack, but they were not remotely broken. The apartment was bright and cheery, in stark contrast to the somber home we had just left. Once again it was all hugs and amazement when we fanned out into the apartment. As Mette told me toward the end of our visit, “What you are doing is soooo nice, but it’s soooo not Danish.” That may have been why our reception had been uniformly accompanied by such wide-eyed admiration. While it was a very Jewish thing to reach out to brothers and sisters in pain, it was the uniquely American manner in which we did it. We didn’t just send our love in the form of notes or funds. We invaded.
We would have traveled great distances for Hannah Bentow regardless of her appearance or demeanor, but she just so happened to light up the room. Her smile was contagious. She had long, wavy blonde hair and blue eyes that likely made her Nordic ancestors proud, and it could not have been easy for her to be sociable with our band of unwashed misfits. She had never been to America and I could not know what her impression of Americans was. She did know that we had come bearing gifts, so that may have helped. I invited her away from the clamor by the door as I did not want her to feel she was a bystander. It was all about Hannah. I may have also been as anxious as she was to get to the present giving segment of our traveling show. I most likely rushed through the introduction, but tried to convey our general feelings of unity with her and our sorrow over the destruction of her special day. At the same time, I dropped two bags of gifts on a chair in the corner of the room. We all gathered around. Rabbi Loewenthal began covertly filming as we had surprises awaiting her including a much coveted iPhone 6. As Mette read one of the letters, translating from English to Danish (although I was assured by Hannah her English was very good), she was overcome with emotion. She began to cry. She handed off the letter to Clous who stoically read until the end. Hannah was overwhelmed as well, her enormous smile never fading, but fluctuating between glee and embarrassment. For me it was a moment that will forever be frozen in time. It was the actual dream I had a week earlier; a solitary enigmatic thought – the kind that usually withered to dust by morning – taking shape in the physical world. We were doing our part to heal a wound. To make a difference in the immediate present, but perhaps also in the course of this one girl’s life. So many things would occur to Hannah in her lifetime, but hopefully she would always retain the memory of a few faceless figures who swooped in at a difficult time to remind her that she was important. That she was specifically cared for and worried about by millions who shared with her something eternal and infinite. And maybe she would come to not regret her Bat Mitzvah, but to see it in a new, positive light. Wouldn’t that be great?
The Bentows served us olive dip, crackers, and the official beer of Denmark, Carlsberg. Mette, with her vivacious personality, spoke of her once upon a time wish to move to New York and live on the Upper West Side. In fact, Clous, the quieter of the two, had plans many years back to apply to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. There was a bookcase full of seforim in the middle of their living room. Neither had ever been to America. We didn’t talk about anti-Semitism at all, although we touched upon the fear their youngest had been experiencing during subsequent trips to the synagogue. We mainly spoke as friends catching up after a long absence. We laughed a lot. Also present were Mette’s sister, and two friends, a couple, who came in from Jerusalem to be with them. The friend was Danish and had married an Israeli. He happened to be one of the premiere bagpipe players in the world. So we spoke about kilt etiquette.
We could have spent more time. In fact, we were invited to join them later in the evening for coffee. But everyone had a memorial service to prepare for and it had been a long day. Hannah was scheduled to light one of seven candles at the ceremony.
We said our goodbyes and see-you-laters, and promised to meet again in happier occasions.
The Synagogue Memorial
A few hours later it was dark outside and we were in a filled to capacity Great Synagogue. There were Police SWAT-type trucks lined up, stretching around the corner of Krystalgade. We only were allowed past the soldiers carrying machine guns after a community member standing alongside the perimeter ushered us in, recognizing that we were the American group traveling with Rabbi Loewenthal.
We were told to come early for the 7:00 pm service and we were sitting in the back row of the magnificent main sanctuary by 6:15 pm. There were cameras and reporters and then essentially every member of the Danish Jewish Community. I asked someone if this was the Yom Kippur crowd, and the woman replied, “No, this is much bigger.” The only non-Jews invited to the service were politicians and Christian and Muslim religious leaders.
The service took less than an hour, and incorporated speeches from Dan’s sister, friends, two Rabbis, and Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt, interspersed with songs in Danish, Hebrew, and English. The crowd of approximately two thousand joined together spontaneously in song when the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah came around, and again during the final song of the evening, Ya’aseh Shalom, May He Bring Peace.
We filed out into the street amidst the throng, past the wilting memorial flowers smothering the gate. A security guard elected to walk us part of the way to our hotel.
Rabbi Loewenthal could have easily called it a night, but he emailed that he would pick us up at 9:30 pm to take us to the Chabad House for dinner. We protested on his behalf, but we were quite hungry and did not have access to much food. He gave us a tour of the smaller Chabad synagogue and school and introduced us to his pregnant wife and an orthodox Danish-Jewish member of the community (a rarity indeed). We ate and talked about the security needs of the community. It was clearly on everyone’s mind. Whether it was safe to wear a yarmulke anymore. How long would the armed guards be stationed outside Jewish institutions. With our bellies full of chicken and rice, we walked back to the hotel, our heads spinning with the miracles and worries of the day.
Despite our running on fumes, we woke on Wednesday morning at dusk to attend morning services. There was only one daily minyan in all of Denmark and it began at 7:00 am. We returned to the Great Synagogue, brimming with activity the night before, it was then eerily vacant. Following a cavalcade of security measures, including armed guards, approval via webcam, and being corralled like livestock into a gated pen, we entered the synagogue to pray. The sanctuary that had witnessed the prayers of two thousand Jews the night before was reduced to hosting a scattered fifteen. Attendees included Andrea Uzan in the back, ready to recite the Kaddish for her brother, and the Bentow’s bagpipe musician friend.
As Rabbi Oppen foretold, we used our final few hours to tour the city of Copenhagen. A remarkable city of culture and beauty. With young, symmetrically designed Danes on hundreds of bicycles zipping around us, we traipsed through the cobblestoned streets, exhausted but motivated.
We took the canal tour by boat, climbed a tower in the middle of town to get the scenic view, stopped for coffee in a book store cafe. Our only uncomfortable moment came on the canal tour when gliding under a bridge. There was graffiti scrawled across the nether-arch of the bridge. FREE GAZA, it said.
When we got back to the hotel, the Rabbi struck up a conversation with a woman sitting in the lobby, in Copenhagen on business. She happened to be Jewish, from Madison, Wisconsin. We wound up putting her in touch with Rabbi Loewenthal. She too was floored by the nature of our trip. Ironically enough, her community was jolted the prior week by a sudden shocking wave of anti-Semitism. Twenty-five swastikas were painted on garage doors in the Jewish community, though not all the homes were Jewish. No one was apprehended. The feel good wave we had been riding came crashing back down. What was going on in the world?
Jan picked us up at 4:00 pm. I said farewell to Phillipe as his flight back to Zurich was much later than ours.
In the airport, as I tried self-check-in, I was told to see the ticket desk. Turned out I had been selected for a random security check.
About an hour later, the rest of our group having already boarded, I found myself cordoned off in a separate area with other allegedly random security-check folk. The two teenage girls to my right wore hijabs. The couple to my left were clearly Muslim as well; she was young with long hair; he was bearded and had only one good eye. We waited in silence, perhaps indignant silence.
“We need to make sure we all have the same story,” I said to break the tension. I looked slyly to my left and right and everyone began laughing.
It was a laugh that, at least for me, was equally cathartic, enlightening, and heartbreaking. Because didn’t it always come back to humanity? In those laughs and in those smiling faces I saw luminous humanity, and I had to confront the part of myself that was trained to believe it wouldn’t be there or the part that didn’t want to find it.
And as we were each called in one by one, it was with a good-luck nod and wink, and more smiles. I couldn’t help but brazenly, fearlessly, and wildly think about making more impossible dreams come true simply by taking practical steps toward them. Small steps that amounted to greater ones. I thought about a Jew and four Muslims finding a tiny window of accord. And how that window could expand. And expand. And go viral, and fill the chasms and break the barriers that separated good, optimistic people with the bad and corrupt ones. And then we could live in the world that Mordachai Uzan hoped for even as he buried his only son. If only we had the tenacity and foolishness to take our dreams more seriously.
On March 12, 2015, the dream of Josh Salmon came true. He organized a second Bat Mitzvah party for Hannah and her family, in Jerusalem.
Two days later, the dream of Niddal el-Jabr brought together one thousand Danes of all backgrounds and religious beliefs to surround the Great Synagogue of Denmark with hands linked.
A symbol of love, respect, and understanding. And dare I say a window expanding.