The local LGBT synagogue Congregation Or Chadash was one of two Jewish places of worship that may have been the targets of a terrorist plot that was foiled Oct. 28.
Authorities intercepted two packages that contained explosives in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The packages had Chicago addresses on them. ( However, according to YNetNews.com, there may have been as many as four packages targeting local synagogues. )
According to the Chicago Tribune, a source said that the packages were headed for Jewish houses of worship in the Lakeview and Rogers Park neighborhoods. Congregation Or Chadash used the facilities at Lakeview's Second Unitarian Church up until a few years ago; since then, Or Chadash has shared a space with Edgewater's Emanuel Congregation.
Rabbi Michael Zedek of Emanuel Congregation said that an official told him, "'The good news is that your congregation was not one ( of the targets ) ; the bad news is that Or Chadash was.'"
Congregant Stephen Weiser, a former co-president who has been part of Or Chadash for 31 years, told Windy City Times that he found out about the plot upon attending a special synagogue dinner and service Oct. 29. "Andrew [ Deppe, Weiser's husband ] and I were attending a congregational dinner that was held before the service. Rabbi Zedek and Rabbi Edwards came on the scene, and I went over to themand that's when I learned from [ Or Chadash ] Co-President Bill Wahler that Congregation Or Chadash was one of the intended recipients of the package. I just had to sit down.
"Rabbi Zedek then made a formal announcement to our congregation at the dinner. ... We then carried on, and figured there was no reason to panic."
He added that he was initially shell-shocked but that he is now "OK." When asked how the development has affected his general state of mind and if he is more vigilant, Weiser said, "I'm certainly [ more vigilant ] when we're at the synagogue. I was standing at the side doors which were locked, and someone I didn't know wanted me to open the door. I didn't know who he was so I didn't open the door, so he came in through the front door. As it is, he [ was ] someone who attends synagogue, but I didn't know him. I also look for packages.
"Actually, I've been to Israel a number of times, so it's been my practice to do that before this happened. ... It's nothing new for [ the Jewish ] community."
Asked if he plans on continuing to attend service, Weiser said, "Oh, yeah. I don't think [ the situation is ] going to deter anyone. ... We've certainly bonded with the Emanuel congregation. They're very supportive of us."
Wahler told Windy City Times Oct. 31 that he was setting up for the Oct. 29 service when he got a call from Edwards. "He said, 'I'm on my way,'" Wahler said. "I said, 'I thought you weren't coming tonight because your wife is ill.' He said, 'I'm on my way. We have an issue. ... The rabbi from Emanuel called me and said [ Or Chadash ] were the target of a terrorist bomb.' I was stunned."
He added with a laugh, "I think Congregation Or Chadash and Congregation Emanuel are the safest places to pray in Chicago right now. There are police every where, and police cars going through the lot about every 15 minutes. They responded well, but we're still, like, 'Why us?'"
Regarding the entire situation, Or Chadash Rabbi Larry Edwards e-mailed Windy City Times, "I actually know very little, and [ what I know is ] third-hand, at best. My impression is that Or Chadash was not targeted as a GLBT congregation, but more likely as part of a random list of Chicago synagogues. I hope to learn more in the coming week. Fortunately, systems worked this time. We will go about our business, though with a bit more alertness."
Wahler said that what really scared him is that "we are in a building that has a day school. If that bomb had actually arrived and gone off during the daythe number of children [ who ] would've been affected..."
Wahler also said that he and Co-President Lilli Kornblum had not heard from authorities as of the morning of Oct. 31.
Reflecting what Weiser said about moving on and being aware, Wahler said, "We are continuing business as usual. We are having services next Friday night [ Nov. 5 ] . We will be extremely vigilant." However, he acknowledged that Or Chadash's welcoming atmosphere could be a hurdle: "That's part of the problem [ when ] you're a synagogue. What you don't want to do is insult them. But what I've told people is, 'If you see someone you don't know, challenge themespecially if they're walking around with a knapsack.'"
CNN.com has reported that the Dubai package possibly traveled on passenger planes to get to that destination. U.S. officials believe al-Qaeda bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, 28, is connected to the explosives found there and in England. Yemeni engineering student Hanan Al-Samawi was arrested after her name and cell number were reportedly mentioned on the packages; she has since been released, according to the Yemen Observer.
The World Congress of GLBT Jews, of which Or Chadash is a longtime member, issued a statement calling the congregants "our friends and colleagues." The congress' president, Howard Solomon, asked people "to keep the members of Or Chadash in [ their ] thoughts. We unequivocally condemn this attempted act of violence against the GLBT Jewish community. We are reminded to remain vigilant but to continue living our lives."
Or Chadash, which was founded in 1975, was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2006.