By: Barak Hagler | Opinions  | 

Thank You, America, for My Religious Freedom

As my father and I drove into my shul’s parking lot on Friday afternoon, I noticed something different. The space in front of the shul, which was usually empty, now housed two parked police cars with their lights on. An unfortunate consequence of the horrific killing of eleven Jewish souls that had occurred in Pittsburgh less than a week prior. I pointed this out to my father, noting that our shul, like many others, had responded with necessary increased security measures. He solemnly acknowledged this change, and then shared with me a relevant post he had seen online. The post posed the following question: “If you need an armed guard to protect your freedom of religion, do you really have freedom of religion?” Startled by the candor of the question and its implications, I let it settle into my head and pondered the challenge. After a few moments’ thought, however, I realized something. While provocative, the question presupposed a fundamental misunderstanding of what freedom of religion means. Just because I need physical protection to exercise my freedom of religion, that does not mean it is lacking.

I think most people would agree that the United States of America is a free country. It was founded on ideas of individual liberty, and its people enjoy a plethora of rights, including the unique First Amendment. And yet, the country spends billions of dollars on our defense force and has an incredibly vast army. Does this mean that we are not a free country? Are the liberties of Americans restricted because of our sophisticated and expensive military? Certainly not! So then, why do we have such a large army? The answer, of course, is simple. We have an army to ensure that we, as a country, remain independent. Our defensive forces exist to rebuff any outside powers that may try to invade and compel our country to act in accordance with how this foreign power would prefer we behave. However, our freedom remains the same. If there was no threat from outside forces and a military was not required, we as Americans would enjoy the same freedoms that we do under the current state of existence where an army is necessary.

Freedom of religion is not any different. The fact that we may require increased security and armed guards in and around our shuls does not mean that we are any less free to practice our religion than if we did not need these extra precautions. Freedom of religion does not mean that there is no one who would like to stop us from practicing our faith. Freedom of religion means that there is no higher body (in our case, the American government) that can force us to stop practicing our religion. We may have armed guards and police cars, but as long as it is within our legal rights to practice Judaism, then our freedom of religion is not compromised our reduced in any way.

Truthfully, it goes even further than that. Having an army does not only not reduce our freedom as a nation, it enhances it. The fact that the government and the people are willing to spend so much on a defense force goes to show the importance of our independence. We are willing to spend billions upon billions of dollars to ensure our safety and our ability to live freely.

So too by freedom of religion. The American government could theoretically have responded to the tragic shooting by putting the onus of increased security solely on the shul’s themselves. Instead, however, police forces around the nation increased patrols to help provide the increased security. It’s not that a police presence shows a lack of religious freedom. Even if the publicly funded security does not last forever, that cities across the nation responded with an increased police presence expresses just how important freedom of religion is in this country!

With this in mind, I think it is appropriate to express a sense of hakaras hatov to the United States of America. It is the greatest country for Jews in the history of the world, outside of Israel. The fact that we have this level of freedom to practice our religion here is unbelievable and should not be taken for granted. After the horrible events of that Shabbos, so much of the country came together in solidarity with the Jewish people. The leadership of the nation expressed their greatest condolences for the Pittsburgh community and the greater Jewish community and put forth promises to combat anti-Semitism. While our eyes need to constantly be turned eastward towards Israel, for that is where the future of people the Jewish people is and always will be, it would be an injustice to forget how kind America has been to us. And with that I say, thank you, America, for my religious freedom.

Photo Caption: The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights