Rabbi Natti Friedler is the Senior Rabbi of the Orthodox Auckland Hebrew Congregation in Auckland, New Zealand. Over 150 years old, it is the oldest congregation in the country, with 600 members. He recalls for The Jewish Press the day of the Christchurch mosque shootings, and how it affected the Shabbat services in his community.
The Jewish Press: Rabbi Friedler what was your reaction when you first heard of the shootings?
Rabbi Friedler: The news took me by surprise; it was in the middle of the Shabbos preparations on Friday afternoon around 2 p.m. We heard there was a shooting, and quickly after, the Community Security Group contacted me and the board with concerns about having Shabbat services in the shul. They were afraid of another organized attack.
What made you decide to close the shul for Shabbos?
There was some misinformation in the media that we closed the shul because we wanted to identify with the Muslims. Of course, we wanted to identify with them, but it’s not a reason to close the shul. Definitely not to skip Shabbat service! It was Shabbat Zachor, one of the most important Shabbat readings of the year.
The recommendation from the police was not to have services at the shul. So I ran to the shul and grabbed the Sefer Torah and as many siddurim and Chumashim as I could. I organized for us to meet at my house.
It was so fabulous. We had 20 people Friday night for Shabbat dinner and reached 50 for Shabbat morning. On a regular Shabbat we have 70-80 people, so 50 people on short notice was quite astonishing.
Did you share a special message with your congregation related to the shooting?
I did a sermon in my house, and I spoke about Amalek and how it is not ancient – that there is still pure evil in this world – but as Jews we have to add light.
The shul reopened Tuesday. Purim night we did a memorial service. It was hard for people to come dressed up and feel joy when something so terrible just happened. Still, we had 150 people for the megillah reading.
Moving forward: What are your plans for long-term security?
Until the attacks, we were the only shul that had security all the time for services, and they were not allowed to carry weapons. Since then, we have two armed policemen during school and service hours constantly protecting us. It [feels] very strange.