NOVEMBER 1, 2018 – The leafy neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh has an airy feel of comfort. Filled with shuls, kosher restaurants and Jews who run the gamut from Orthodox to secular, it is a set of blocks where one can feel connected to all things Jewish round the clock. Close your eyes and you’ll feel like you’re in Brookline or parts of Fairfax in LA, or West Rogers Park in Chicago.
For residents, these streets have always represented a unique slice of the American Dream. People move to neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill because of the culture, and the freedom to become part of a community that mirrors one’s values.
When historians write about the last 200 years in America, they will record it as a golden era for Jews. For Jews, the American experience has been an anomaly in our long, often torturous existence. With democracy and the constitution serving as the backbone of our nation, Jews have long lived peacefully and largely undisturbed in our cities and suburbs.
With civil liberties and coexistence on our side, the thought of violence and mass murder in our community seemed unfathomable.
But days after 11 Jews were slaughtered while praying in a Squirrel Hill shul, it’s fair to ask what kind of America we have woken up to this morning.
It is a deeply divided nation. Civil discourse and common respect is at a premium, and rather than focusing on core issues – such as the economy, education, health, and world safety – our country’s top elected officials have chosen the path of blame, lashing out at one another while insisting that America’s biggest problems are immigrants and journalists. Many Americans have followed their lead, as they sit in front of the dim light of their computers, typing away on social media to peddle conspiracies and hate. And to no one’s surprise, much of that hatred is focused on Jews. Again.
FBI hate crime statistics show that more than half of reported anti-religious hate crimes in the United States were motivated by anti-Semitism. Across America last year, there was nearly a 60 percent surge in reported anti-Semitic incidents according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Many of the incidents happened right here in Greater Boston. Last year, the New England Holocaust Memorial was vandalized twice. And just this past week, a slew of anti-Semitic graffiti was discovered in Salem – just a year after a swastika was painted in its town common. And the sleepy town of Reading also has a swastika problem – over 24 incidents were reported in its schools over the last 18 months. That led to a rally against anti-Semitism late last month. Still, just days after that rally, yet another swastika was found in a Reading classroom.
As we mourn those who uttered their last words in the Tree of Life sanctuary in Pittsburgh on Shabbat, we recognize that there is no single response to anti-Semitism. Words and prayer are not enough. Perhaps it is best to start with the advice of Holocaust survivors, who warn us not to be silent, and to use our voices to ensure that our democracy continues. If we are silent, if we tacitly accept mass shootings, hate crimes, bullying and intimidation; if we fail to listen to one another and find common threads, then we will struggle with these questions alone, such as wondering what kind of democracy do we still have in America?
Steven A. Rosenberg is the publisher and editor of the Jewish Journal.