For activist TM Garret, the January 15 crisis at the Texas synagogue was yet another reminder of the fears we now face daily
Feature image from Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, Texas
By TM Garret
I was born into a German non-practicing Catholic family in 1975. While I grew up believing in God, religion didn’t play a major part in my life for a long time.
But those who know me, they know that I became trapped in hate groups as a young teenager, and then climbed up the ladder to become a leader in that movement.
Until love showed me the way and I decided to leave this life full of hate behind me.
After almost 15 years vilifying “the other” – immigrants, Jews, Muslims or Black people, Asian People, Disabled People or the LGBTQ community – pretty much anybody who was different than me, a man of another religion, a Muslim, showed me nothing but compassion and love. These were people I once hated, and his love made my hate crumble.
I started to listen, finding out how big our commonalities were. After a long journey I was allowed to explore all these groups I once hated, learning how much I had in common with these people and how unimportant things like skin color, nationality or religion were.
One of these groups was the Jewish community. I found out about the many stereotypes many people still believe in, stereotypes that are outright wrong. And in 2018 I started to explore Judaism.
The ethics of Judaism aligned with my newly formed ethics. I felt attracted to this diverse community and – since I never stopped believing in God – I also found a new religious home.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I was attracted towards most. The community? The ethics? The religion? I found that Judaism is all of it! I developed a deep love for it, and in 2020 it became clear to me: I made the decision to join these wonderful people and to convert.
Before I had decided to convert, I remember when I decided to participate in a Jewish service for the very first time. I already had joined Jewish friends for Shabbat Dinners, for Pesach and Hanukkah. I had lectured many times at Synagogues and Chabad Houses. But I had never been to a Synagogue just for the purpose of service and to pray.
And so, I decided to make Yom Kippur 2019 my first time. I became acquainted with the Rabbi of the Or Chadash Synagogue in Memphis and was warmly welcomed to take part at the Erev Yom Kippur service. What better day could it have been for me, the day Jews around the world ask God for forgiveness of their sins. And oh my… I had to ask for a lot of forgiveness that night. For the first time in my life, I wore a Kippah and they handed me a transliteration so I could pray in Hebrew.
After the service, a congregation member walked up to me and asked me about Anti-Semitism in Germany. And knowing how much Germany had atoned and is making sure historic atrocities never happen again, I could assure them Jews wouldn’t have to worry about the Germans.
Only to find out that a German Neo-Nazi would attack the Synagogue in Halle, Germany, the very next day. During Yom Kippur. I felt like a liar. I thought, “What had I told these people last night?”
And a very uncomfortable feeling crawled up on me. I thought, “If someone would have entered that synagogue last night, to murder everybody inside… I looked like a Jew, I prayed like a Jew. I would have been dead.”
You know, whenever something has happened to those in minority communities, I feel genuinely and deeply sorry for them. I picked up the phone after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed and asked my Black friends if they were ok. When the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, was attacked I picked up the phone and called my Muslim friends and asked if I could do anything. And when 11 Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, I checked in on my Jewish friends and told them that I would be there for them.
Empathy, I could show them. But I was never able to walk in their shoes. I wasn’t one of them.
But that day in 2019 changed everything for me. Because the uncomfortable feeling that crawled up on me? It was fear. For the first time in my life I felt the feeling of not feeling safe, for the simple reason of being a member of a minority group.
After a terrorist held the Rabbi and three congregation members hostage at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, for 11 traumatic hours on January 15th 2022, I felt thrown back to that day in 2019. And all I can think of now is for the many people of the Jewish faith will fear for their lives in the upcoming months and beyond when they enter their local synagogue for Shabbat service.
I will be one of them. And yet, I will go.
TM Garret is a Public Speaker, Human Rights Activist, Consultant, Author, Extremism Researcher, Interfaith Activist. “Be the change you want to see in the world”
“Why It’s Scary to Be Jewish in America Today”
“The Hostages Escaped, But Synagogues Ask, How Can They Be More Secure?”
SB 30 Podcast: From Hate to Compassion – Mark Fleischer interviews TM Garret