Anxiety and fear casts shadow over new year for U.S. Jews

Rising anti-Semitism across the country has left the community fearful.

In this Thursday March 9, 2017 file photo, two young men who left a nearby synagogue watch police activity outside the Jewish Children's Museum following a bomb threat in Brooklyn borough of New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
In this Thursday March 9, 2017 file photo, two young men who left a nearby synagogue watch police activity outside the Jewish Children's Museum following a bomb threat in Brooklyn borough of New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Wednesday evening marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and the first of the High Holy Days. But for Jews across the United States, the celebration has been marked as much by fear and precautions as it has by good tidings and well wishes — a sign that rising anti-Semitism and an alarming string of hate crimes have set American Jews on edge.

Since the election of President Donald Trump, violence against minorities has been on the rise across the country. Jews are among the most targeted groups, according to tracking done by ThinkProgress, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a number of other publications and organizations. According to the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, approximately 1,266 incidents of anti-Jewish violence were recorded in 2016. This year, that number is likely to rise — in April, an ADL report noted that 541 attacks against Jews had already been reported, an 86 percent increase over the same time period last year, numbers that reflect bomb threats, vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, and physical violence.

“There’s been a significant, sustained increase in anti-Semitic activity since the start of 2016 and what’s most concerning is the fact that the numbers have accelerated over the past five months,” ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt said at the time of the report.  “Clearly, we have work to do and need to bring more urgency to the fight.”

That anxiety has only ramped up in the lead-up to the High Holy Days, which began Wednesday evening. The holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark a deeply important part of the Jewish calendar, but concerns over safety are causing many to worry — especially in light of recent events.

During the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last month, white supremacists marched while chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and the German slogan “blood and soil!” The rally coincided with Friday and Saturday prayer services, leaving members of the local Congregation Beth Israel to deal with a frighting scene on the second day, when men waving swastika-decorated flags marched by the building. Synagogue president Alan Zimmerman later wrote that neo-Nazis outside yelled, “There’s the synagogue!” and “Seig Heil!” as they walked by.

“A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime?” asked Zimmerman. “We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.”

“When services ended,” Zimmerman went on, “my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.”

Several weeks later, another synagogue faced a similar predicament when it opened its doors to protesters in St. Louis, Missouri demonstrating against the acquittal of white police officer Jason Stockley, who killed 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black man. Upon realizing protesters were inside, #GasTheSynagogue began trending on Twitter, with neo-Nazis and white supremacists calling for the sanctuary’s destruction.

That incident and the events in Charlottesville are only the latest in a series of alarming episodes, and some aren’t taking any chances. In Gainesville, Florida, the Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Student & Community Center told the Ocla Star-Banner security would be stepped up during the holidays.

“We are a target for an attack for multiple reasons,” said Rabbi Berl Goldman. “We are Jews, the center is also a synagogue and it serves many other functions in the religious community as well.” The center notably serves the University of Florida, where white nationalist Richard Spencer is scheduled to speak.

Elsewhere, similar scenes are playing out. Around California’s Bay Area, Jewish congregations are stepping up security and taking extra precautions.

“There’s no choice–there’s really no choice,” Rabbi Steven Chester of Temple Israel of Alameda said, referring to a decision to install additional security cameras. Last month, a man threw rocks through the synagogue’s windows. Another area rabbi, Daniel Stein, said security would be in place throughout the holidays at Congregation B’nai Shalom.

“As Jews, we are always aware of security issues,” Stein said.

In Texas, concern seems to have led at least one congregation to conduct services in virtual secrecy. According to Newsweek, an unnamed synagogue is circulating a document laying out a procedure for entrance to holiday services, noting that the location is not being publicized.

“This procedure will be repeated for each service,” the document runs. “There will be a security guard positioned close to the Greeter’s table. [Effusive gratitude for cooperation redacted.] [Name Redacted] does not publish the location of its services, just the schedule and an email address if more information is desired. If your guests will arrive separately, please be sure they know where the services are being held.”

While Jews around the country hope the concerns will turn out to be baseless, the first day of the Jewish new year has already been marred by a somber note. Georgetown University authorities found a swastika painted in a residence hall restroom Wednesday evening, something campus police are reportedly investigating as a hate crime.

In an email sent to students, university president John J. DeGioia said that “those found responsible for these acts of hate will be held fully accountable for their actions” while adding that the Nazi symbol was “accompanied by threatening and derogatory language advocating for violence against women.”

“There is never a time or place for these acts, and this incident is even more disturbing during Rosh Hashanah,” DeGioia wrote. “We stand in solidarity with our Jewish community and strongly condemn this act of hate, anti-Semitism, and sexism.”