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Jewish Perspectives On Recent Anti-Semitic Violence


Last Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched in New York City to show their support for the Jewish community and their abhorrence of recent anti-Semitic attacks, which included a knife attack at a rabbi's home during a Hanukkah celebration in New York and a shooting at a kosher market in New Jersey. The No Hate No Fear march drew a wide cross-section of people from around the country, including people and leaders from other religious traditions.

But those incidents seem to be part of a trend. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, Jews are now a top target of hate crimes in America's three biggest cities. And that got us thinking about the kinds of conversations Jewish Americans are having with themselves, with each other and with non-Jews right now about what this all means.

This, after all, is a community where visible markers of identity vary and practice traditions vary, so we've assembled a varied group of interesting people to talk about this. Sarah Hurwitz is with us. She's a former speechwriter for President Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, and author of a new book about rediscovering her faith. It's called "Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, And A Deeper Connection To Life - In Judaism (After Finally Choosing To Look There)." Yes, it's a mouthful.

Sarah Hurwitz, thank you so much for joining us.

SARAH HURWITZ: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Eli Steinberg is also with us. He's a member of an Orthodox Jewish community in New Jersey and is an ordained rabbi, but he's currently not affiliated with a congregation. We found him through some pieces he has written.

Eli Steinberg, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

ELI STEINBERG: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, Rebecca Pierce is a filmmaker and writer based in Northern California, and she identifies both as African American and Jewish. And we also found her through some pieces that she's written.

Rebecca Pierce, welcome to you as well. Thanks for joining us.

REBECCA PIERCE: Thanks for inviting me.

MARTIN: So, Sarah, I'm going to start with you because you rediscovered Judaism later in life. And you've said in your book it's almost because you were bored and looking for something to do, and you took a class that kind of helped you reconnect.

I was wondering, you know, how are you processing these attacks? I mean, you've said in your book that you always identified as Jewish and always felt pride in being Jewish, but your decision to recommit and to practice is very much an adult decision. So I'm wondering, how is all this striking you? Does it make you feel any kind of way?

HURWITZ: Yeah. I mean, it is striking me as incredibly scary, incredibly upsetting. I mean, I think I feel it even more intensely than I would have before my rediscovery of Judaism because I'm so steeped in Judaism now. Right, I'm going in and out of a lot of Jewish spaces, and I am just - I am feeling a heightened sense of fear.

And I'm also feeling just a sense of heartbreak and frustration because I think that so often, the narrative about Judaism in the media is something to the effect of Israel plus anti-Semitism equals Judaism. And, of course, those are two very important issues. But, like, we also have 4,000 years of extraordinary theological insight, ethical wisdom, holidays, lifecycle rituals.

And when the only storylines about Jews and Judaism in the media are these really controversial, upsetting stories about people hurting us - like, it's discouraging, and I feel like it's sort of - you know, it's really - it's tough. And I think it's what a lot of Jews are focusing on now. And I sometimes feel like the rest of Judaism, all of the great things that we bring to the world, don't get as much attention.

MARTIN: And, Eli, it's interesting that - you know, you're here too because you wrote an article on The Forward last month, which is a news outlet that focuses on issues of particular concern to Jews. And your piece said, the silence surrounding violence against us Orthodox Jews is deafening. What's the silence that you observed? And did the march last week make you feel more supported?

STEINBERG: What frustrated me the most was that this has been going on - this other-ization of visibly Orthodox Jews and basically practicing Jews who are identifiable. And people really didn't seem to care. And it's a shame that it took such extreme stories like the shooting in Jersey City and the stabbing rampage in the rabbi's house over Hanukkah, which brought it to the public's consciousness that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with.

MARTIN: OK. Rebecca, what about you? The way you walk in the world - has that changed at all?

PIERCE: I think for these two recent attacks, a lot of the conversation has been around black perpetrators of these, like, hate crimes. And I think for black folks in the Jewish community, we're just as impacted by this violence. But at the same time, there's another set of concerns that we're also dealing with, which is, like, the way that these conversations are racialized and that black folks are not considered part of the Jewish community in a lot of people's assumptions. So that's always something that's important to push back against.

And there's also some preexisting issues. Just like the violence against Orthodox Jews was a preexisting issue, there's also a preexisting issue of anti-black racism that is everywhere in the United States and, of course, part of Jewish communities. And these kinds of things can get really inflamed when the tensions are being - you know, occurring across racial lines.

MARTIN: Can you guys answer, like, what kinds of conversations are you having just with yourselves and with the people that you feel safe having conversations with? You know, the analogy being in recent years the whole question of police violence against unarmed black men and boys has become something that has been discussed outside of the black community. And the conversation has been about the talk that they have with their kids.

And I'm not sure that people outside of those communities knew that those conversations took place until people chose to talk about it and to say, oh, yeah. I'm afraid every day. I'm afraid every day my son gets behind the wheel of a car. Do you all find yourself having conversations among yourselves that you wish other people were having or that you feel that you perhaps would like to share?

HURWITZ: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's - you know, I think one thing that I have been talking with about with a lot of my friends is just, you know, to hear the president of the United States making blatantly anti-Semitic comments - that has been very scary, right?

This is a person with the largest bully pulpit in the country, if not the world. And making comments about Jews being obsessed with wealth and this half-baked condemnation of neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville - I mean, just to have his lawyer making these crazy comments about George Soros. It's, like, business as usual.

That, I think - I - it's something my friends and I have talked about because, you know, it's one thing for some fringe group of people to be doing this. It's another thing for it to be coming from the highest office in the land. So I think that's something that's come up a fair amount.

MARTIN: Eli, what about you? Are there conversations you have with your friends, with your set, that you perhaps would like other people to be a part of?

STEINBERG: The morning after the stabbing in Monsey, I had a conversation with my wife about allowing my children to walk to synagogue unaccompanied - you know, just around the corner - because it sort of exposes the reality that anywhere you go as a visibly Orthodox Jew, there might be people out there who would see that as an opportunity to do us harm.

The other sort of conversations that we had - I'm very fearful of people who try to turn this into sort of a racial thing because this anti-Semitism that's kind of a wave in the country - it's not about black people. It's not about white people. Those are all different streams that have been doing stuff to us under the umbrella of anti-Semitism.

MARTIN: Rebecca, thoughts?

PIERCE: Well, a big conversation around black folks in the Jewish community right now is around, like, the sort of different ideas of safety. And one where, for example, going to a synagogue, your skin color marks you as different right away. If you're not a white person, you're often questioned.

And then, like, we are part of our Jewish communities. We also are part of the black community. And so certain solutions that I think may be a knee-jerk go-to for some people come with another set of consequences for us. Like, increased policing might make people feel genuinely safer for a lot of the community. But also, if, you know, you're black, you know that that might come with you getting profiled.

And so I think for a lot of black Jewish folks, yeah, we are dealing with sort of two streams of, like, safety concern, which is the anti-black racism and anti-Semitism. And then we're experiencing those things together, and they're not separate for us.

MARTIN: So in the time that we have left, I'd like to hear from each of you about what you want to see happen. Like, how do you think productive conversation should proceed? Rebecca, I'll start with you on this.

PIERCE: For me, the solution to all of these issues is having accountable relationships between communities. And I think black Jewish folks have something we can offer to that effect, although placing that burden just on us is really hard. But listening to the voices that are in between both communities in the aftermath of Jersey City, one of the things that I saw that was really beautiful was folks in that religious Jewish community doing charitable work with the black communities side by side help trying to serve the most needy.

And I thought that that was a really beautiful example of how you respond in the face of hate, and that's doing things together in solidarity and fighting for the society that, at the end of the day, we all have to share.

MARTIN: Eli, what about you? What do you - what would you like to see happen going forward?

STEINBERG: I guess if I - to put it into a sentence, I would love to see people take the time and make the actual effort to understand visibly Orthodox Jews as human and understand that if there are things about us that they don't understand - and trust me, I know they exist - they should make a good-faith effort to try to understand by reaching out to somebody from the community, getting to know, you know, what is this issue about, what is this thing about you in an intellectually curious way that's not leaning on preexisting biases.

MARTIN: And, Sarah, final thought from you.

HURWITZ: Yeah, a couple things. I mean, we've got to pay attention to this. This is really serious, it's scary and it's rising. And I also want Jews to really feel like, you know, there is more to Judaism than anti-Semitism, right? We have so much deep, edgy, beautiful wisdom about what it means to be human, what it means to live a good and worthy life. We have so much to offer and so much to learn from.

I think that so often when Jews make it into the media, it's, like, because someone is trying to hurt us, right? I don't want us just to be seen as victims but also as people with this rich, deep heritage and culture that has so much to offer to the world. So I don't want that to be lost.

MARTIN: That's Sarah Hurwitz. She's a former presidential speechwriter and the author of "Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, And A Deeper Connection To Life - In Judaism (After Finally Choosing To Look There)." We reached her in Cambridge, Mass. Sarah, thank you.

Eli Steinberg is a writer and ordained rabbi. He's currently not affiliated with a congregation. He joined us from his home in New Jersey. And Rebecca Pierce is a filmmaker and a writer based in Northern California, and we reached her there. Thank you all so much for joining us.

PIERCE: Thank you.

HURWITZ: Thank you.

STEINBERG: Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.