How to answer strange questions

How to answer strange questions

When strangers come to your synagogue, how should they be treated?

Congregations in the Miami area have put that question to the test, and it turns out that the answer isn’t so simple. According to reports, two women wearing hijabs and identifying themselves as Muslim twice visited a North Miami Beach synagogue. They asked questions such as, “When are services?” “How many members belong to this synagogue?” and “When is Yizkor?” In the course of her questioning, one of the women pulled out a Koran.

There is no crime in carrying a holy book, of course, but the logistical nature of the pair’s questions raised concern with one of the congregants who spoke to them. After accompanying them to the synagogue door, he called security.

The synagogue member was 100 percent correct in doing so. Though the women committed no crime — questions are, after all, how we learn things — today’s environment requires utmost vigilance at our communal institutions. Strange or awkward questions by unexpected visitors can quickly turn into the attacks of tomorrow.

Being cautious when someone knocks on the door is always prudent. And in light of the uncertainty of exactly what was going on, the Miami synagogues showed proper caution without overreacting.

“We have been teaching the people in our congregation, if you see something, say something,” said Rabbi Donald Bixon, who leads one of the synagogues in question.

Authorities see it that way as well. They praised the synagogues for alerting authorities of the issue, even though, after an investigation, North Miami Beach police said the two women “pose no threat to anybody.” One of the women, Nabila Ouakka, told a television reporter that she has terminal cancer. Why did she visit the synagogue with her daughter? “I wanted to meet new friends. I wanted to get in touch with my brothers and sisters.”

In commending the police response, ADL Florida regional director Hava L. Holzhauer said, “This incident highlights the real struggle synagogues, churches and mosques find themselves in when trying to keep an open and welcoming environment while at the same time being vigilant.”

Wifredo A. Ruiz, of the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations, agreed: “If I see a stranger walking into an Islamic center in Jewish garb, asking what time we congregate? How many people go? That’s strange behavior and is going to be reported.”

We hope for a time when interfaith dialogue reaches the point where innocent or curious interactions don’t seem strange. But until that time comes, stay vigilant. And, if you see something, say something.