In 1990, my mother, a celebrated composer from St. Petersburg, won a competition to perform her music at the Kremlin. A few nights later, she got a phone call: “Jew, if you sing in our Kremlin, we’ll murder you and your children.” I was 10. A short while later, I was playing basketball with friends when a group of young-adult thugs came over and beat me bloody. “Tell your mother we say hi,” they taunted me as they left.
That was the moment my family decided it was time to get out of the Soviet Union, a place where Jews were both openly persecuted by the government and where day-to-day antisemitism was condoned. We knew our future could be secure only in a place where the rights of the Jewish people were protected like anyone else’s. A place where Jews would be respected for their faith and who they are, not attacked for it.
This search led our family to Israel, after illegally fleeing the Soviet Union by way of Helsinki. Two years ago, together with my family, I relocated to the United States. While this move was in order to accept a position as a rabbi and teacher at the Chabad-Lubavitch Shaloh House Jewish Day School in Brighton, it was a continuation of our dream back in Russia: to live, teach, and share Judaism with my fellow Jews in safety and freedom.
I believed in America’s promise — and that hasn’t changed one iota.
On July 1, I stepped out of Shaloh House to take a phone call. It was loud inside the building, where some 100 Jewish children were enjoying another day of fun and learning at our Camp Gan Israel, an experience in Jewish pride. I sat down in front of the building where it was quieter.
As I spoke on the phone, a man I didn’t recognize walked up to me and produced a gun. He demanded I take him to my car, parked nearby. I immediately offered him the keys to my minivan — not something worth dying for — but then he tried to force me inside. I had cash and credit cards in my pockets and a phone in my hand, but he didn’t want them.
I realized this wasn’t a simple carjacking. If he wanted my vehicle, why did he need me to come along? I knew that if I got in, I might never see my wife and 12 children again.
The next thought that crossed my mind was of all the young campers inside Shaloh House. When a person walked by, my assailant quickly hid his gun. I took advantage of his momentary distraction and made a mad dash across the street and away from my synagogue. If he’d catch up to me, I remember thinking, at least the children would be safe.
The stranger pulled out a knife and followed me, swinging and thrusting his knife at and into me again and again and again. I saw hatred in his eyes, and realized that this man would not be satisfied until his weapon found my heart. I started kicking him and tried deflecting his arm with mine. His blade struck me around my shoulder, arm, and ribs about eight times.
At the same time, I started making a commotion to call attention to the attack, and my assailant finally fled.
Since that day, I believe that the young man who tried killing me in broad daylight in front of the giant menorah outside a synagogue in Boston was motivated not by theft, but by hate. Hate for the Jews as individuals, hate for us as a people. He had loitered outside the synagogue the day before, acting so suspicious that a bystander took a photo of him. He has since been charged with hate crimes for his vicious attack that day.
He had planned for this. He had armed himself. But he missed something crucial about our matchup. He had a gun, a knife, and venom in his heart. I had my bare hands, a background in martial arts, and, most important, faith.
When I saw that gun pointed at me, something else flashed through my mind. It was the story of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who was arrested by the Communists in 1927 for the “crime” of sustaining Jewish life in the Soviet Union. During brutal interrogations, an investigator pointed a revolver at him and said: “This little toy has made many a man change his mind.” The Sixth Rebbe replied: “That little toy can intimidate only the kind of man who has many gods, and but one world — this world. Because I have only one God and two worlds, I am not impressed by your little toy.”
It was a story I had heard countless times. Now I was facing that barrel myself.
The Soviets sentenced the Sixth Rebbe to death before ultimately releasing him and allowing him to leave Russia. In 1940, he escaped war-torn Europe and arrived on American shores, where he set about reestablishing the center of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement amid this country’s promise of freedom and foundation upon trust in God.
Building on this foundation, his successor as Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, launched a global campaign to engage Jews from all backgrounds wherever they may be. It was at Schneerson’s direction that Shaloh House was established in 1962.
America is a haven for all, and it’s up to each of us to keep it that way. We cannot allow attacks on our faith to cow us into hiding our Judaism. And we’re not.
I am determined now, more than ever, to continue living my life as a proud Jew and encouraging and teaching my fellow Jews to do the same. I have committed to opening a new Jewish educational center in Brighton, where I will be ordaining eight new rabbis.
In the days since I was stabbed, I have likewise been heartened by the countless messages I’ve received from people expressing their conviction that this attack will not dampen their Jewish pride, learning, or practice. This is the attitude we all need.
I am proud to live in this country, one in which trust in God is on the currency. It is trust in God that enabled me to survive this attack, and it is trust in God that empowers us to uphold America’s promise of freedom and liberty for all.
Rabbi Shlomo Noginski is a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi serving at Shaloh House in Brighton.