Welcome to another installment of Feel-Good Friday, a new feature in which I spotlight something or someone making positive impact on the world.
I received an email today from my synagogue, in which the head Rabbi detailed the various security measures being implemented to keep the community safe. Additional armed security guards. Increased police presence. Safety features built into the structure of the building. A lay-person safety team to guide the community in case of a fire or a lockdown. A new member ID-card program.
This synagogue is on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. A neighborhood in a city long considered safe for Jewish people.
But in 2020, suddenly no neighborhood is safe for Jews.
A Disturbing Rise in Anti-Semitism
The number of anti-Semitic hate crimes is on the rise.
The New York Times reported that
a coming report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, shows that anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — the nation’s three largest cities — are poised to hit an 18-year peak.
A moment of pause to catch my breath while I contemplate the fact that there is a Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
This is a thing. A place where people study hate.
This is the world we live in. A world where there is so much hate that we need places dedicated to the study of it, and people willing to do that studying. I don’t know what to do with this information, with this reality of how things are.
Anyway. I digress.
Back to New York, the rising instances of anti-Semitic hate crimes, and protocols for active shooter drills and increased security. I know this is not just at synagogues. The wave of hate and attacks has affected all religions.
I wanted to convince myself that Pittsburgh and Poway were somehow different. They weren’t New York City, where baseball stadiums and sports arenas have kosher food stands. Alternate side of the street parking rules are suspended on all Jewish holidays. New York City public schools close on Rosh Hashana. It’s safe to be Jewish here.
But recent events have shattered that illusion, bringing the sting of anti-Semitism to my home city. Within a two week span in December, there was an attack across the river in Jersey City, another in Monsey, just north of the city, and several in Brooklyn.
I am angry about this. We should feel safe in a house of worship. Is this not something we can all agree on? Unfortunately, this is not the reality of our world today.
So here we are. It is what it is. Rather than wishing it were another way, we must ask,
What do we do about it? What can we do about it?
The Futility of Protests and Politics
On the first weekend of this new year, thousands of other New Yorkers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, a show of solidarity against anti-semitism and hate crimes. The march made the New York Times and other news outlets.
My skeptical nature tends to believe that this is really the sole purpose of big marches.
You close off streets to traffic, get some inspirational speakers to rally the crowd, and politicians speak platitudes to give the crowd what it wants to hear. When it’s over, everyone goes back to their business of day-to-day living, but very little actually changes.
Different people have different theories for the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes, and hate crimes in general: the political environment, the President, lax prosecution, permission to be more open in their hatred.
Most “solutions” take aim here. Politicians promise more rigorous prosecution, tougher hate crime laws, greater police presence at houses of worship.
That’s all great, and yet woefully insufficient.
Will would-be attackers be deterred by harsher penalties for hate crimes? Many view themselves as martyrs for their own cause, fighters for justice. The people who walk into a synagogue or a church or a mosque firing weapons are willing to die for their “cause.” Does anyone think the death penalty will deter them? It’s what they want.
More practically, do we really want to live in a world where the “solution” to attacks at houses of worship is to increase police presence at those sites? At best, this is an interim measure.
This is just another example of our culture that seeks to solve effects, rather than causes. It’s like giving someone a band-aid and expecting it to cure cancer.
The attacks are symptoms of the disease. Who is offering a cure for the disease?
If you’re wondering when we get to the “Feel-Good Friday” part of this post, the answer is: now.
A Beacon of Hope
Finally, the other day, I discovered a beacon of hope. Two men who, independently and collaboratively, are, in their small way, doing their part to eradicate the cancer that is spreading through our nation of hate.
Rabbi Yoni Katz is a member of the Chabad Lubavitch Movement and the founder of JewishBrooklyn.nyc, through which he hosts walking tours of the Chassidic area of Crown Heights. As he explains on his website, the tours offer “visitors from all across the world an inside look at the people of the book.” He received some press attention for the ways in which his tours open doors to the notoriously insular world of Chassidic Jews. His tours promise to answer your questions about Chassidim.
Roy Germano is an Adjunct Associate Professor at New York University and a documentary filmmaker. He is not Jewish.
Roy lives just a few blocks from the Chasidic community in Crown Heights. He is not Jewish, and realized he didn’t know anything about the Chasidic community. With the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the neighborhood and region, he decided to learn more about his neighbors. He went on one of Yoni’s tours in the fall, and since then has filmed three videos with Yoni, sharing his experiences learning about the Chassidic Jews in his neighborhood.
Here are links to the first three videos:
Please watch these.
Pulling Out the Weeds By the Roots
Hate crimes, of which anti-Semitic attacks are just one form, are born of hate. Hate is born of fear. Fear can be dismantled through curiosity and understanding. Yoni Katz opens the door to that understanding by inviting people from all walks of life and all corners of the world into a famously insular community in Brooklyn.
Roy Germano walked through that open door and opened it wider, sharing his experiences and with a growing YouTube audience.
The significance of this is reflected in the comments, the vast majority of which are positive. Neighborhood residents are grateful for how their culture is being shown. Jews and non-Jews from around the world are grateful for the insight into the community and the wisdom that Yoni shares.
We hate what we fear. We fear what we don’t understand.
Yoni and Roy are illuminating something mysterious to many people and creating a bridge to understanding. This is the path to healing.
Here’s how Roy explained it in a talk he gave at the Chabad on Campus Conference in November, before he and Yoni started their project:
Once we take the time to get to know each other, and learn about each other, and stop always focusing on our differences, it becomes very, very, very hard to hate each other…. In the process of getting to know someone in a different group, we start to see people as individuals. And we know in every group there’s good people and bad people. And we start to pick away at the stereotypes. This is what our country and what our world needs right now. More conversation between people of different groups, of different religions, of different backgrounds. And I think that’s the only way we’re going to get past all of the polarization and hate that’s happening in our world. — Roy Germano, speaking to the Chabad on Campus Conference in November
Yes to everything he says here.
Will this end hate crimes tomorrow? Maybe not. Healing takes its time.
But at least Roy and Yoni are targeting the problem at the source. They are pulling out the weeds by the roots, rather than just cutting them out. They are fighting the disease of hate not with protests and calls to politicians, but with the medicine of curiosity, compassion, conversation, connection, and community.
Increasing police presence at houses of worship isn’t a permanent solution. What we need is a path to healing. Yoni and Roy have given us a model for how we can navigate this path. Each of us can play a part in this. All it takes is some curiosity, an open mind, and a willingness to listen and engage.
If we can eradicate the hate, the crime will take care of itself.