April 27 was already going to be a somber day on the Jewish calendar. This year it coincided with the start of Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, when the country pauses to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for defending Jewish lives and sovereignty.
But the day was also the one-year anniversary of the deadly synagogue shooting in Poway, Calif., when a 19-year-old gunman shot and killed a worshipper inside Chabad of Poway and injured the rabbi. This week neighbors there and Jews around the world remembered Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, a loving wife and mother for whom the Chabad was a second home. Like the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue seven months earlier, the Poway shooting left American Jews feeling vulnerable in ways they hadn’t perhaps in decades, despite the documented rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric online. By invading synagogues, the shooters struck at the heart of the Jewish communal and spiritual enterprise, our literal sanctuaries for expressing who we are as a people.
Of course, the Poway shooting wasn’t the end of it. Last year saw the deadly attacks in Jersey City and Monsey, N.Y.; a rash of assaults on the streets of New York’s charedi Orthodox neighborhoods; and the return of anti-Semitic rhetoric as a tool for various global despots. In a recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League, 54 percent of American Jews say they either experienced or witnessed an anti-Semitic incident over the past five years. One-in-five say they have been the target of anti-Semitic comments; a similar proportion say a synagogue or institution they are associated with was vandalized or targeted.
To be sure, American Jews as a whole feel distinctly safe and secure. Jewish life here flourishes in so many ways. But the fear and vulnerability are real, as was demonstrated by the tens of thousands who marched in the “No Fear” rally over the Brooklyn Bridge in January.
Marches are symbolic. To fight the scourge of anti-Semitism, action is essential. The ADL and other Jewish groups are urging Congress to pass the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would boost federal reporting on domestic terrorism threats and provide training and resources to state and local law enforcement. Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden marked the Poway anniversary, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, with a three-point plan to counter anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. It would increase Department of Homeland Security funding for securing nonprofit institutions, beef up federal prosecution for hate crimes and examine the broader societal contexts in which hate flourishes, from social media and technology platforms to the ways troubled people with toxic ideas slip through the cracks of our mental health system.
Biden is running for president, of course, and he blames President Trump for allowing a climate of intolerance to endure. But the fight against anti-Semitism and hate needs to be above partisanship. We need general agreement that anti-Semitism must be fought on the right and the left. We need funding to make our institutions safe and legislation to give law enforcement the tools they need to track, pursue and prosecute hate-mongers. No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, demand that your candidate stand up to hate.
And remember, too, that even at our most vulnerable, the Jewish community has allies. The victims and survivors of Poway and Pittsburgh were flooded with messages and gestures of support from people, politicians and clergy of all races and creeds. Stuck for the moment in our relative isolation, we can’t forget all the connections among good people.