Peace in Martin Place

December 19, 2014 by Henry Benjamin
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Rabbi Levi Wolff and Rabbi Zalman Kastel joined other religious leaders in Martin Place in an act of togetherness centering around Ken Johnson, the father of Tori Johnson who was brutally murdered during the Martin Place siege.

A multi-faith peace sign     Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

A multi-faith peace sign Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

It is believed that the 34-year-old Tori Johnson, manager of the Lindt Cafe, was shot by Man Haron Monis who  held 17 people hostage in the CBD coffee shop for 16 hours before police stormed the building and killed Moris. Mother of three  Katrina Dawson also fell victim to the siege. Johnson is reported as having tried to wrest the gun from Moris’s hand.

Last night, as Sydney’s CBD showed signs of returning to normalcy, Martin Place remained a sea of flowers and Ken Johnson was introduced by phone to the first person to lay a floral tribute at the scene of the siege.

For Rabbi Wolff and his wife Rebbetzin Chani Wolff, it was a poignant moment as the Central Synagogue’s spiritual leader put his hands on Johnson’s shoulders and recited the priestly blessing.

Ken Johnsopn hugs Rabbi Levi Wolff   Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Ken Johnson hugs Rabbi Levi Wolff       Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Apart from Rabbis Wolff and Kastel,  Imam Wesam Charkawi from Auburn, Ramu, a Hindu priest and the Uniting Church’s the Reverend Bill Crewes were on hand to offer comfort to the grieving father and Tori’s sister Rada.

But for Ken Johnson it was a moment of togetherness at which he wanted to demonstrate a unity between all people as he and his daughter Rada were joined by the religious leaders in raising their hands showing the huge crowd around the perimeter of the floral tributes the familiar two finger sign for peace.

The well-known landscape artist who spends a large part of the year in India was also comforted by Rama, the Hindu religious leader from Holdsworthy in Sydney who recited prayers in Sanskrit.

Ken Johnson told J-Wire: “We’re a good family and a strong family. Our grief is momentary. My son – his love was immense, but his bravery was immeasurable.”

To the people of Sydney he said: “Keep it rolling. Get rid of the cars and fill the streets with flowers. I will do my best to honour my son’s bravery.”

Rabbi Levi  Wolff invokes the priestly blessing   Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Rabbi Levi Wolff invokes the priestly blessing Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

He told media that he wanted to meet the person who placed the first floral tribute in Martin Place. Twenty minutes later he was speaking to her on a mobile phone. Katherine Chee worked at the Lindt coffee shop with Tori Johnson and was about to start work at 11. Suzannah Bluwol, a friend of Chee’s told J-Wire: “She came to work early that day and was a very good friend of Tori’s. She wanted to place a bunch of white roses and the site and got special permission to do so.”

A grief-stricken Rada Johnson, Tori's sister  Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

A grief-stricken Rada Johnson, Tori’s sister                        Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Rabbi Wolff presented Ken Johnson with a Yahrzeit candle which burns for the seven days of the Jewish initial mourning period. Rabbi Wolff told J-Wire: “I gave him the candle on behalf of the Jewish community. I told him that a soul is referred to as the candle of G-d Ken Johnson is a very spiritual man and he was able to relate to this. I told him that the nature of a candle’s flame is that it is always looking to go upwards as humanity does. We always want to reach higher places throughout life. The heroic act of his son Tori has put him at a level higher than any candle can reach. I told him that one candle can give light to thousands of other candles without losing any of its own. I told him that Tori is one of G-d’s tallest candles and that he has lit up a nation with his brave act.”

Ken Johnson receives his Yahrzeit candle  Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Ken Johnson receives his Yahrzeit candle Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Rabbi Wolff added: “While we came here to give Ken Johnson strength I feel I have gained strength because he is very engaged in how he has reacted to this terrible crime. He  is not wallowing in misery and bitterness…on the contrary he has taken this opportunity to ensure that this murderous act has not just put an end to his son’s life but it is going to inspire other people’s lives. Ken Johnson is trying to bring love to this world and he is trying to foster peace amongst different religions.”

Ken Johnson talks to Katherine Chee    Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Ken Johnson talks to Katherine Chee Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Ken Johnson told Rabbi Levi Wolff that he had not found it within himself to smile until today. He had not slept for four days. Rabbi Wolff told J-Wire: “He told him that having religious leaders around him had given him a sense of comfort and a level of happiness.”

Rabbi Zalman Kastel told J-Wire that he had organised some of the religious leaders. “Ken Johnson contacted me and asked me to organise men ‘in religious garb’. I called the appropriate people including Rama, the Hindu priest in Liverpool. He rode pillion on his son’s motorbike to get to Martin Place on time. Mr Johnson told me he wanted to make statement for world peace by having all religions unite.”

Johnson was visibly overwhelmed as he walked around the perimeter of the tributes. He was given gifts and people just wanted to touch him and offer him their heartfelt condolences. But a special moment for him was when he met a woman who put him in touch by mobile phone with Katherine Chee who placed the first floral tribute to honour the memory of Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson.



5 Responses to “Peace in Martin Place”
  1. Liat Nagar says:

    I wasn’t thinking of marriage only, or specifically (despite the subject matter we’ve been discussing) when referring to awkward situations facing Rabbis in relation to Jewish law and the Torah. There are a host of issues that are not satisfactorily dealt with due to current practice of Jewish Orthodoxy. I would hope one day to see some change in this regard, just as there was change in relation to finding it no longer necessary to actually kill animals for sacrifice, as I mentioned earlier.

    There is a big problem for Jewish people who wish to marry in a Jewish service that is not Orthodox. Basically, it’s not recognised by the Orthodox as legal, and therefore children of that kind of marriage are viewed illegitimate at that level of Judaism. As you will know, if you want anything other than an Orthodox marriage in Israel you must leave the country, which is why many Israelis go to Cyprus for the wedding service. It’s about time all this was sorted out sensibly, for all kinds of marriages. I guess Reform and Conservative Rabbis would also be fed-up with not being thought of as equal or treated equally.

    So, perhaps you’re right, and these Rabbis would not feel awkward. Perhaps they wouldn’t feel awkward about the food choices you posit either. This due to the clarity in their own minds of where they stand.

    • Michael Barnett says:

      Ideally governments shouldn’t involve themselves in marriage and just limit their involvement to civil relationship registration. That would make most of these issues go away. Unfortunately it’s not so simple. Thanks for your understanding though. 🙂

  2. Liat Nagar says:

    I find Rabbi Zalman Kastel’s smile a little too wide and ‘happy’ to be appropriate to the occasion.
    As to the sexuality of Tori Johnson, the deceased, it is only one element of his make-up, and in Judaism nothing comes before the loss of life in importance as an issue. In saying that, it’s true that Rabbis are sometimes placed in awkward positions contemporarily due to the problems literal reading of the biblical text can cause. At some point we shall have to struggle forward into the future taking into account new knowledge on issues that allow different perceptions, or Rabbis will have no room to move. At some point long ago, for instance, it was decided that the blood sacrifice of animals was no longer a necessary act to perform.

    • Michael Barnett says:

      Liat, how is a rabbi placed in an awkward position when I ask the government to allow me to marry the man I love, under civil law? The Rabbinical Council of NSW made a submission to the Senate opposing changes to the Marriage Act to allow people like Tori Johnson and Thomas Zinn from marrying under civil law. There is no position, let me repeat, no position, that these rabbis will ever be placed in that will be awkward for them, in terms of civil marriage.

      An awkward position for a rabbi is when he is invited to a dinner where he’s asked to choose between the chicken parmigiana and the prawn cocktail. Equal rights for gay people is not awkward for rabbis, unless they actively interfere, because it doesn’t inolve them.

  3. Michael Barnett says:

    What disturbs me deeply about these rabbis ingratiating themselves on the father of Tori Johnson is that they would not be respectful of the 14-year relationship between Tori and his partner Thomas Zinn. The two men wanted to marry each other and here we have two rabbis who are both opposed to homosexuality and same-sex marriage, blessing the father of the deceased.

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