The volume of reported anti-Semitic incidents in the first months of 2017 has been unprecedented. Within the past week, three Jewish cemeteries – in Rochester, Philadelphia, and St. Louis – were desecrated; hundreds of headstones damaged and toppled. Five waves of phone threats at JCCs and day schools have rattled our north American Jewish community – our JCC was targeted just this past Monday (thankfully the threat proved false and no one was hurt). Though an arrest was made just this morning for some of the recent bomb threats, the Secure Community Network (the national homeland security initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America & the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) does not believe that this individual is responsible for the majority of the threats.
Still, American Jews are grappling with how to understand the surge in hate crimes and anti-Semitism across our country and it is impacting people and communities in a very personal way. To desecrate an individual grave is a personal insult, but to vandalize an entire cemetery is to insult our entire people. To threaten our community centers and schools upsets our lives, but it is also an affront to our way of life.
One measure of our nation’s strength is what we do in challenging moments like these. What we are seeing is heartening. A fundraising campaign was started by several Muslim community leaders to raise money for the repair efforts in St. Louis. Just three hours after discovering the Philadelphia Jewish cemetery was vandalized, young Muslims arrived to show solidarity and lift fallen headstones. Similarly, the Jewish and Christian communities have rallied around the Muslim community after recent fires at mosques: in one instance, local Jewish leaders actually gave their Muslim neighbors the keys to their synagogue so they could continue to worship.
Here in Orange County, UC Irvine’s Chancellor Howard Gillman shared an extraordinary message with the Anteater community decrying the threat against the university’s “neighboring” Merage JCC and encouraging learning and mutual respect. He wrote, “In the face of violent threats, we add our voices to the chorus that declares we will not be intimidated as we pursue our mission to create and sustain a world in which diverse groups of people work together to advance our mutual well-being and common humanity.”
A similar message was shared broadly by the Islamic Institute of Orange County in which they stated, “We want you to know that the American Muslim community absolutely rejects the hatred and discrimination against the Jewish community. You have every right to be part and parcel of this community without being demonized for your race or faith. Regardless of our theological or political differences, we are happy you are here as our neighbors. That is what American pluralism is all about. We will continue to do our best to stand up against any hatred or discrimination aimed against any Jewish communities.”
Our community has also received messages of solidarity from local schools, churches, the Catholic Diocese of Orange, and many individuals. We are incredibly grateful for all of the expressions of support shared with us over the past few days.
When my elementary school-aged kids asked me about the bomb threat at the JCC, we had an open and honest conversation. We went through the nuts and bolts about what a bomb threat is and the mechanics of the actual evacuation. That’s where they are at and I met them there. I also shared that within hours the “all safe” had been announced and everything was back to normal, and I was right back in my office the next day. I promise you that this is not the kind of conversation I look forward to having or ever imagined I would have with my children.
I was already thinking ahead to the next question I thought they were going to ask, “Why would someone do that?” The good news is that kids are resilient and I had answered the questions that were most pressing to them. I am ready to go further when they are ready to go there.
So, what was I going to tell them? I was going to share with them that even though there are bad people in the world, what we can do, what we are responsible for, is to make the world around us a better place – one action, one good deed, one mitzvah at a time.
We have the choice to treat others like we would want to be treated, with compassion and respect, with acts of loving-kindness, or gemilut chasidim.
I hope you will join me in considering that we can each do our part every day and make choices based on the foundations of our Jewish values – choices that can start as simply as opening our eyes to the people around us and acknowledging their humanity.