Big crowd at a vigil for Pittsburgh shooting victims the day after the attack (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
A vigil at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos for victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Oct. 28, 2018 (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Despite a bomb threat at my Bay Area synagogue, I still feel safer among my fellow Jews

After Friday night services on Sept. 8 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, I secured the choice position as first in line at the oneg table in the social hall.

The spread was abundant in honor of our guests, U.S. Rep Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami. Instead of celery sticks, baby carrots, crackers and cheese, there were elegant tea sandwiches. Thin slices of cucumber, cream cheese and sprigs of dill on crustless whole wheat.

I was about to reach for a second tea sandwich, when I noticed a woman alone on the other side of the table. She wore a black polo shirt, cargo pants cinched at the ankle and black lace-up boots — not a typical sartorial choice for synagogue. When she caught my attention, she said urgently yet softly, “You need to evacuate. Right now.”

A woman next to me asked, “Bomb threat?” The woman in black nodded.

Time became slow motion.

Cradling a cucumber sandwich, I walked out calmly and quietly like everyone, downhill to the parking lot. No one appeared to be panicking. We passed the bomb-sniffing dog, the SWAT team and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department SUVs with swirling blue and yellow lights.

I did not panic because I did not believe there was a bomb. If someone wants to kill you, they don’t alert you. Yet I experienced physiological symptoms of fear: numbness, perceiving time differently and tunnel vision like focusing on the sandwich. My husband and friends also told me that they felt numb and removed.

If someone wants to kill you, they don’t alert you.

What then was the fear? I realized the bomb threat was a hate crime. Someone hates me, hates us and wants us to suffer. I knew this at an intellectual level, but now I was experiencing it and was afraid of where hate could lead.

A month later on Shabbat, the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre killed 1,200 people in Israel. To my shock and horror, demonstrations against Israel followed. A Cornell University professor, who is a former Palo Alto resident and brother of my daughter’s friend, called the attack against Israel “exhilarating.”

That was the day I stopped feeling safe in the outside world.

As I and hundreds of others stood outside in the parking lot on Sept. 8, I looked uphill at the synagogue. Beth Am’s round sanctuary with its tall glass windows is designed to look like Abraham’s tent, famously open all sides in a show of hospitality

I thought about my first boyfriend, Danny Stein, who died in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life shooting in 2018 and thought, “This could have been Tree of Life. It could happen here.”

I realize that being at a synagogue or anywhere where Jews are congregated, despite increased security, is like being a sitting duck. Yet I have chosen to show up in person at shul.

The irony is that despite the increased risk of being surrounded by Jews amid the rise in hate crimes, hate speech and antisemitism, I feel safer by choosing to be with my people.

Natalie Bivas
Natalie Bivas

Natalie Bivas is a retired Palo Alto reading, writing and ESL teacher. She is a member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.