In the past month, two anti-Semitic incidents impacted me personally — two more than in my entire life, and I am 58. The first was the bomb threat at our school, and recently, the Jewish cemetery that was desecrated in Philadelphia, which was not far from where I grew up.
When I heard about the cemetery in Philadelphia, my first thoughts were of my parents, in-laws and other family members. The incident was atrocious, and I was personally relieved that it did not occur at the cemetery where my loved ones are buried.
These hateful acts, whether they are bomb threats against JCCs and Jewish schools or vandalism to Jewish cemeteries and synagogues — they are as cowardly as they are despicable. They are intended to instill fear and insecurity in us.
While it is sad and unfortunate that anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head in ways that many of us have never experienced or have not experienced in decades — it should not be a surprise that in this politically charged climate it has surfaced — for it is never far beneath the surface. In fact, even in “quiet” years, Jews usually top the FBI list as the No. 1 religious group subject to acts of hate in the United States. (Yes, there are more incidents against Jews than Muslims.)
As an individual, I have never defined my Judaism by the tragedies that have befallen us — the Shoah, pogroms and expulsions through the centuries. Rather, I have always embraced Judaism for all that is positive and beautiful about my religion, culture and people. I love being Jewish for all the joy and meaning it brings to my life.
There are times, though, when we must speak up and resist those who seek to marginalize us, terrorize us or even physically harm us. Bomb scares will not force Jews into the shadows again. Vandalism against our sacred spaces will not cause fear. Anger, yes — not fear.
Our job is to live our lives normally, proudly display and express our Judaism, and speak out against anti-Semitism and against all hate perpetrated against others — regardless of religion, race or sexual orientation.
I will continue to wear my kippah, proudly, in public. At Hillel, we will remain vigilant, as always, and we will proceed as usual providing a safe, nurturing and proud place to be Jewish and express our Judaism. I will let my politicians know that silence in the face of vandalism is completely unacceptable, and that action must be taken.
I will also be sure to take note and to share stories about all of our wonderful fellow Americans who are just as appalled as we are about these recent incidents. Like the police chief, William Dial, in Whitefish, Mont., who placed a mezuzah on the door of the police station as an act of protest against the rise of anti-Semitic incidences in his community, perpetrated by local neo-Nazis. Or the passengers on a New York subway car, who upon entering the car noticed swastikas on every advertisement. A guy took out hand sanitizer, passed it around, and the passengers removed the swastikas. Or the Muslim community in St. Louis that got together to raise money to help repair the Jewish cemetery in their community that was desecrated.
We cannot ignore the rise of hate in our country and against Jews. And sadly, we cannot hide it from our children. We need to speak to them about this, in age-appropriate ways. We have addressed it in school with the older students and will continue to do so, as needed.
The PJ Library recently tackled this topic and provided resources for speaking with young children about hate and anti-Semitism. Look for it at pjlibrary.org.
Finally, we all can do something now: The ADL has a link for each of us to sign a request demanding that the attorney general take immediate action to reassure American communities, to act on his commitment to uphold justice, and to keep our children, our places of worship and our civil society safe and protected by law. Visit adlaction.purpose.com/agsessions and sign the request.
Steve Freedman is head of Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit.
This piece first appeared in USA Today