The American Jewish community is under siege. In too many circles, it is not safe to be a Jew.
This week I met with parents of my synagogue’s youngest children who described their babysitters sitting together in a local park with their little ones playing nearby when suddenly a man yelled, “Are any of these kids Jewish?” Simple terror flooded their veins.
I also met with parents of elementary schoolers whose concerns are more complex. Many of them perceive their schools’ leadership as failing to address Israel’s war against Hamas with moral clarity, suggesting instead moral equivalency between Hamas’s barbarism and Israel’s efforts to protect its people. Their children are lonely among non-Jewish classmates too young to comprehend the anxiety their Jewish friends have internalized at home. And most teachers are ill-equipped to address the discomfort, let alone the conflict in the Middle East.
Understandably so. No one was ready for this. Not the teachers. Not the guidance counselors. Not the administrators. I reassured the parents that these were well-intentioned educators. But for lack of preparedness, finding the words to describe and the tools to address this tragedy befuddled them. Three weeks in, some have found the words and discovered the tools; others still have not.
And the parents are baffled by what they perceive as a double standard where antisemitism is concerned. They fully supported the thoughtful DEI initiatives recently implemented to draw greater awareness to the myriad microaggressions targeting other minority communities, and now wonder why those directed at their own children do not qualify for redress.
I have met with high school students experiencing what we thought reserved for their college peers: social exclusion because they are Jewish and the politicization of the classroom where Israel is portrayed as the root cause of Palestinian suffering. “I am so glad to be in temple right now,” one of them told me this week, not a common refrain among high school students. She explained that in synagogue she was surrounded by other Jews among whom she felt a safety she did not feel anywhere else.
And I have heard from college students who feel isolated and alone. On the quad, some describe an atmosphere of vicious bullying, others of physical intimidation. At New York’s Cooper Union, Jewish students sought cover inside a library while anti-Israel protesters banged on the doors. At Cornell, online posts threatened violence against Jews. Some college students are afraid even to leave their dorms and just want to come home.
My conversations with rabbinic colleagues are also distressing. They describe their bewilderment that interfaith partners with whom they built relationships over decades failed to reach out after Hamas’s brutal assault, and weeks later still won’t acknowledge the suffering of the Israeli people without the caveat that it be considered in a broader historical context – a claim that seeks to legitimize Hamas’s atrocities as justified resistance to Israeli occupation. These colleagues now question whether the energy and years devoted to interfaith bridgebuilding were a waste of time and effort.
Shver tsu zayn a Yid. Sadly, the old Yiddish proverb is true. Right now “it is hard to be a Jew” in America. Throughout our history here, we have faced our share of exclusion to be sure – from businesses, schools, neighborhoods and social clubs. And the last decade witnessed a terrifying increase in antisemitic rhetoric and violence. For far longer than that, Israel has been demonized on college campuses and in other academic settings. But never in my twenty-five years in the rabbinate have I witnessed the level of anguish American Jewry is experiencing right now.
I write these words as I prepare to board a plane to Israel on a mission of solidarity. But being there will comfort me too. Not a day since its founding seventy-five years ago has Israel known true peace on its borders. Israelis live under the constant threat of terror. And yet they carry on with a resolve born of the necessity Golda Meir first articulated and Joe Biden has since reiterated: they have nowhere else to go.
And so will we carry on in America. I do not believe the alienation the Jewish community has experienced to be irreparable. The wounds inflicted on us by word and by silence will heal. I refuse to give up on my relationships with leaders of other faith communities, some of whom have indeed stood bravely beside me during this most painful time. And I still believe in the principles on which America was founded, which George Washington repeated to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport with the commitment: “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
But just as Israel’s government will be called to account for its lapses allowing Hamas’s murderous rampage, so American academic institutions, business leaders, and even clergy who failed to distinguish between aggressor and victim and sanctioned through their silence rhetorical attacks against the Jewish community all will have to acknowledge those failures for healing to begin.