American Jews are asking: Is it safe to pray in synagogue?

AJC head: The best answer to antisemitism is to continue to live our Jewish lives proudly, openly and without fear.

Supporters of the National Socialist Movement, a white nationalist political group, give Nazi salutes while taking part in a swastika burning at an undisclosed location in Georgia, US on April 21, 2018 (photo credit: GO NAKAMURA/REUTERS)
Supporters of the National Socialist Movement, a white nationalist political group, give Nazi salutes while taking part in a swastika burning at an undisclosed location in Georgia, US on April 21, 2018
(photo credit: GO NAKAMURA/REUTERS)
In New York, where there was an 82% rise in antisemitism in the first three months of 2019, some residents are saying hate crimes are “the new norm.”
This week, two incidents in Florida – a shooting attack in front of the Young Israel of Greater Miami, and a package containing threats and antisemitic writings sent to Young Israel in Bal Harbour – led an area rabbi to say, “We no longer feel comfortable in our own shul.”
Nine months ago, 11 people were killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, and in April a congregant was murdered and a rabbi lost two fingers when a white supremacist shot up a synagogue in Poway, California.
American Jews are asking: Is it safe to pray at my synagogue?
Just ask Ian Goldberg, a resident of Florida, the state with the third-largest Jewish community. He told The Jerusalem Post that the Jewish community is very concerned about the rise in antisemitism.
“It’s becoming mainstream here, especially in left-wing circles, to openly attack Jews and Israel,” he said.
Asked whether he and his family are nervous to attend shul, he said that they attend the covert Chabad of West Boynton.
“It’s not obvious from the outside that it’s a shul at all since it’s on a converted farmhouse on a multi-acre lot,” he explained. “That being said, with the rabbi’s consent many of us carry concealed weapons and run regular patrols around the building during holidays, events and services. We know who everyone is, and we place ourselves in different places during shul in case of an emergency.”
Goldberg called on the entire Jewish community “to be more united around this issue. The more secular streams of Judaism are not nearly as alarmed as the more traditional ones. Orthodox and traditional Jews tend to identify more with Israel, while the secular ones tend to identify more with social justice causes and the American Left. Some even defend [the shooters] and try to explain away what’s happening.”
For Goldberg and Jews across the US, there is a widespread belief that antisemitism today is coming from both streams: the Left with its anti-Israel rhetoric, and the Right with its white supremacist and extremist attitudes.
Jacob Solomon, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said everyone is concerned about antisemitism.
“With the attacks on Pittsburgh and Poway, all of a sudden there is a real, live possibility of an antisemitic attack,” he said.
Following this week’s incident, he said “the Jewish community in North Miami Beach is particularly anxious... but there’s still a lot of people saying, ‘let’s not overreact.’ We need to deal with the facts, and we can’t allow ourselves to get into a bunker mentality. It’s not healthy.”
Solomon added that there needs to be a balance to make sure that there is enough security for congregations to be safe, but also for there to be a warm and welcoming environment. He encouraged Jews to continue going to shul and to events at Jewish community centers and the like, but to always remain vigilant and to be prepared.
“Be trained,” Solomon stressed. “Situational awareness is always critical. Always think about how you would react in these situations. Don’t stay away from synagogues and Jewish community centers, because then that’s a victory for the bad guys.”
He also stressed that Jews must remain united in the face of antisemitism, and that “we cannot allow the toxic nature of political discourse to be divisive. Once the Left or the Right weaponize the Jews, that gives the antisemites the victory.”
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told the Post that “it’s understandable that American Jews feel concerned about the rise of antisemitic incidents, especially after the Pittsburgh and Poway shootings in the past year. In 2018, antisemitic incidents were about twice as high as they were in 2015. From college campuses to the political arena to the public square, we have seen a steep increase that is unnerving.”
He said that despite this, American Jewry has continued to thrive for the past 50-plus years.
“I believe this is a reflection of the fact that America is a remarkably inclusive and pluralistic country that truly has embraced our community,” he said. “There is considerable evidence that supports this observation.”
According to Greenblatt, the ADL has been surveying antisemitic attitudes in the US since the 1960s, and the number has dropped by more than 50% since that time.
“A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that Jews are the most respected religious minority in the US,” he emphasized. “We have the freedom to worship and practice our faith with a sense of security that is almost unequaled throughout the Diaspora.”
While there are threats, Greenblatt said, the “ADL and other institutions are working hard to tackle those challenges. For example, ADL and Secure Community Network/Jewish Federation of North America are working together to ensure that our communal institutions are secure on all dimensions.”
Greenblatt claimed that “as it happens, antisemitic incidents targeting Jewish houses of worship actually declined in 2018 by 23% compared to the year before.”
He made it clear, however, that any antisemitism in the country is too much antisemitism.
“Jews should be able to observe our traditions without fear of harassment or violence... This is an all hands on deck effort from elected officials to community leaders to ordinary citizens. All of us have a role to play to push back on prejudice and ensure that there is justice and fair treatment to all.”
American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris told the Post that “Jews cannot effectively combat antisemitism alone, and the need to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to combat antisemitism in the US, whatever its source, is clear.”
Harris said that the 2019 AJC Survey of American Jews found that 65% think that the status of Jews in the US is less secure than a year ago.
“Apart from important condemnations by political leaders, much more needs to be done,” he said. “Law enforcement must be on alert 24/7 for potential threats and incidents against Jews, all people of goodwill must stand together against antisemitism and other forms of group hatred, and children need to be taught mutual respect and understanding.”
Harris said anti-Zionism must be called out for what it really is, and that cyberspace must be closely monitored as an incubator and purveyor of bigotry and extremism.
“The best answer to antisemitism is to continue to live our Jewish lives proudly, openly and without fear,” he concluded.