July 19, 2024
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MetroWest Forum Addresses Combating Antisemitism

In response to the ongoing rise in antisemitism—both around the country and within the state—the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest held an online community forum to discuss what exactly they are doing to combat the surge, and what, if anything, we can do to help.

In recent months, high-profile celebrities such as Kanye West and Kyrie Irving (from West Orange, New Jersey), have highlighted antisemitic sentiment in the United States. New Jersey is no stranger to antisemitism, with perhaps the most notable attack in December 2019 at a Jersey City kosher grocery, and an FBI-issued bomb threat to local synagogues as recently as November 2022.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents in both the United States and New Jersey reached an all-time high in 2021, with a recorded number of more than 2,700 and 370, respectively, a steadily increasing number in the last decade. When considering how many incidents must go unrecorded, the number is indeed staggering. In 2021, a study on the state of antisemitism in America conducted by the American Jewish Committee, found that one in every four American Jews (24%) was a victim of antisemitism. And yet, according to the same study, over 20% of the general American public does not believe antisemitism is a serious problem.

Volunteer and Short Hills resident Jordana Horn Gordon introduced the Federation panel of four local experts: Linda Scherzer, director of the Metrowest Jewish Community Relations Council, which is the government affairs, Israel engagement and community-relations-building wing of the Jewish Federation; Rebekah Adelson, director of Hillel of Greater MetroWest, helping support Jewish life on six campuses throughout our area; Ilyse Shainbrown, who leads the Federation’s Holocaust education department, among many other things, and works with survivors to share their stories with the community; and Bob Wilson, chief security officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, who helps secure and safeguard our synagogues and Jewish institutions.

According to a 2020 survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (also known as the Claims Conference), nearly one quarter (23%) of American adults ages 18-39 said they believed the Holocaust was either a myth or had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. The Holocaust Education department at the Federation works with local schools to promote Holocaust education, including setting up visits with survivors or the children of survivors. Shainbrown said that when students hear about the commonalities between them and those targeted in the Holocaust, they are able to feel a connection. For example, she recalled one survivor telling school children that she had a dog that she never saw again after being taken away by the Nazis. The majority of the students also had pets, and found this anecdote both relatable and heartbreaking.

At the next level of education, Hillel supports Jewish college students with Israel-related activities, prayer services, Jewish speakers and more. Adelson said that Hillel has a presence on six local campuses, serving approximately 900 Jewish students each year. She said that on college campuses, most of the antisemitism that students face is related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Hillel provides several ways for students to get educated on the conflict, and to be able to answer questions they face. Ultimately, though, Adelson said that Birthright—the free program to Israel for Jewish college students—does the most in helping these young adults form or solidify a connection both to Judaism and Israel. Ideally, Adelson added, students would already come to college armed with the tools necessary to combat this kind of antisemitism. The Israel Teen Leadership program through JCRC does exactly this, added Scherzer.

JCRC seems to do everything under the sun when it comes to advocacy for the Jewish community, with their main objectives being government affairs and public policy (i.e., lobbying for the Jewish community); Israel education and engagement; community relations building (with lawmakers, law enforcement, educators, interfaith clergy and more); and combating antisemitism. Of course, there is plenty of overlap with these imperatives. When celebrities make antisemitic statements, for example, it’s easier to get public officials to make statements in support of the Jewish community when the relationship already exists. JCRC believes that deepening the Jewish community’s relationship with the larger community will strengthen and secure the Jewish community and its future.

Wilson oversees security at the Federation, which extends to training for local synagogues and community centers. It’s important to report incidents so local law enforcement and the Federation are aware and alert, said Wilson, who works with the ADL and other institutions to safeguard the Jewish community at large. Antisemitic incidents should be reported to local enforcement first, he said, and then to the Federation and the ADL. But suspicious activities, people and vehicles should also be reported. Even suspicious communications such as text messages, phone calls and emails have the potential to escalate to violence.

To find all of these resources and more, visit www.jfedgmw.org/shining-a-light-resources.

By Talia Liben Yarmush

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