Is NYC still a safe haven for Jews?

Four years ago, when I was applying to medical schools, my mother asked me not to disclose my Jewish identity to admissions committees nor wear my Jewish star to interviews. She was worried that revealing myself as a Jew would stand in the way of all my hard work at the chance for a medical school admission. I laughed, brushed off her request, and told her that her worries were over-exaggerated and plagued by an unnecessary fear of Anti-Semitism. We no longer lived in Russia. America was not the Soviet Union. And, I argued that I could wear my Jewish star proudly with nothing to worry about. After all, if I couldn’t embrace my Jewish identity, what would our sacrifices in leaving Russia for America have counted for? And now, with the overwhelming Anti-Semitic attacks scaring our communities, I turn to my brother and warn him not to wear his kippah on his walk to synagogue. My brother, a gentle soul who is challenged with a severe speech impediment, cannot defend himself against an attacker. This time, it’s not about enhancing his chances at a medical school admission. Rather, it’s about securing his safety at the risk of another kosher grocery store shooting or Chanukah party stabbing.

News of the countless attacks bombarding the Jewish communities of New Jersey and New York City over the last several weeks occupied my mind as I sat in the library in Boston, studying for my medical boards. I dealt with Anti-Semitism all throughout college at the City University of New York (CUNY) but I never imagined that it would escalate to the violence that many American Jews are experiencing now. I felt enraged by every news article describing these recent events and pained that I wasn’t home, in NYC, to support my Jewish community. But, the very same place where my family found refuge from the Anti-Semitism and persecution they experienced in the Soviet Union, has turned its back on us and I’m not sure if I can still call it my home.

Many accounts of Anti-Semitic slurs on NYC streets and numerous videos of Jews getting attacked on the same trains I took to school warn us that Anti-Semitism is alive and strong. The statistics keep climbing and my hopes for a resolution are getting desperate. Is the answer to increase security at every Jewish function? Maybe. But, to be honest, the more I see security guards at our synagogues, the more I’m reminded that we’re no longer safe in America as the generational trauma of Anti-Semitism creeps heavy into my heart.

Several weeks have passed since Trump declared the Jewish people a nationality in efforts to support the fight against Anti-Semitism. It doesn’t feel like much has changed and the attitude towards Jews might have just gotten worse. What remains true, however, is that no matter how we’re described, a religion or a nationality (or both), we’ll continue to remain inferior in the eyes of the Anti-Semite. In the Soviet Union, no matter how hard we tried to ignore our Jewish identities and assimilate to Soviet culture, we were still treated as second-class citizens. Our men shaved their heads, our women uncovered their hair, our parents gave us Russian names, but, at the end of the day, we were never considered Soviet enough. When my mother asked me to lie about my Jewish identity on my medical school applications, she spoke from personal experience— her lifelong dream of becoming a physician was crushed at the hands of an Anti-Semitic admissions board. I just didn’t think that the Anti-Semitism she experienced in the Soviet Union would exist to the same degree in America, especially in NYC. Maybe Anti-Semitism isn’t occurring at the institutional level as it did in the Soviet Union (and earlier parts of American history) but it’s happening on the streets, having resulted in the death of a young mother, two fathers and a rabbinical student.

Now, in the climate of all the hate that’s been targeting the American Jewish communities, I wonder how I can help fight this devastating reality. So, I write this article. To spread awareness. To spread truth about Anti-Semitism. To remind the world that we, Jews, suffer real, senseless hatred towards our communities and it hasn’t stopped at the Holocaust or the Soviet Union, but it continues to penetrate spaces we used to consider safe. For my Jewish brothers and sisters, I pray for strength to get us through these difficult times. And for our non-Jewish allies, I thank you for supporting us. In the meantime, I’ll keep wearing my Jewish star.

Am Yisrael chai.

About the Author
Born in Russia, raised in NYC and now living in Boston -- I'm a second year medical student at Harvard Medical School and have a strong passion for medicine, culture, history and learning people's stories!
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