By Arthur Z. Schwartz
On April 27, just as WestView went to press, there was a shooting/murder in a synagogue near San Diego. It was the second shooting in a synagogue within 6 months; last October there was a shooting/murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue. I am not a religious Jew, and I have learned to tolerate a certain amount of anti-Semitism in daily life, some of which I blame on Jewish zealots who engage in racist bigoted acts themselves which invite hatred in return. But the events in San Diego and Pittsburgh really shook me up.
Anti-Semitic incidents have remained at near-historic levels across America in recent years, according to the annual audit by the Anti-Defamation League audit. The analysis by ADL, an international Jewish non-governmental organization, was released on April 30. It reported 1,879 incidents against Jews and Jewish institutions across the U.S. in 2018. Of the 1,879 incidents that occurred last year, 1,066 were harassment cases and 774 were vandalism. The 2018 figure is more than double the 751 incidents reported in 2013, making it the third-highest year on record since ADL began compiling such data in the 1970s. Anti-Semitic assaults in 2018 more than doubled the amount tracked in 2017, with 59 Jewish victims identified nationwide, a leap from the 21 identified in the previous year. Unsurprisingly, the states that saw the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 were the ones with the largest Jewish populations, such as California (341), New York (340) and New Jersey (200).
I am the grandchild of “Russian” Jewish immigrants who fled Russia to avoid pogroms in the early 20th Century. I grew up with the Holocaust casting a long shadow over American Jews, many of whom had entire families wiped out in Europe. I was trained in the lore and rules of Judaism but have been a secular/cultural Jew most of my life. 15 1/2 years ago, my third child was born, and at around two months of age, my wife Kelly and I took her to the amazing High Holiday services that the Village Temple has at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. She started to call out, and when someone went “shshshsh” the Rabbi said “no, we want to hear from the next generation.” I was hooked, and since 2003 I have been a member of the Village Temple, a Reform Congregation. I am a member of its Social Action Committee and have been fascinated to participate in a Reform Congregation which includes people like Assembly Member Harvey Epstein and has had a female rabbi for over 20 years.
On March 6 the Village Temple celebrated its 70th Anniversary. It was amazing to hear about how it was created back in 1948 by a group with no money and no building. It took until 1957 to have a small building on East 12th Street (formerly a metal shop) and expanded to its current structure in 1984. It has a busy religious school, one of the biggest soup kitchens in Lower Manhattan, and has shaped services so as to allow congregants to gather on Friday nights for all sorts of interesting speakers who tie into early Shabbat services. Few synagogues can boast about having Palestinian American leader Lina Sarsour give the Friday night sermon, but VT can. It is a congregation which organizes to support Middle Eastern immigrants of all faiths.
The March 6 gala honored Harriet Zimmer, who had recently turned 100. Harriet, who I have sat with in Abingdon Square Park, helped run the Soup Kitchen for 18 years. When I hear about the deaths of elder congregants in San Diego and Pittsburgh, I understand how devastating such a loss can be.
We live in a world where religious intolerance is once again on the rise. Whether it is the bombing of Christians in Sri Lanka, Muslims in New Zealand, or Baptists in Sutherland Springs, Maryland. To me the answer is not to run away from my identity, but to embrace it. It is astounding that Ukraine, from where my grandparents escaped when it was part of Russia, where the Nazis were welcomed with open arms, they just elected a Jewish Prime Minister and a Jewish President. Bernie Sanders, whose extended family was wiped out in the Holocaust (his parents arrived in the 1920s), has the following of millions of people, particularly young people, in his quest for President of the U.S. And he has embraced that identity. But it is critical that we all speak out against religious and race-based intolerance. The killing of a Jew, a Muslim, a Sri-Lankan Christian, or a Black Baptist are crimes which are equally bad and which all of us must publicly denounce. And it remains important to me, that we all embrace and celebrate our personal identities, and say “no.” to intolerance. I have.
Arthur Schwartz is the Male District Leader in Greenwich Village. He was Bernie Sanders’ NY State Counsel in the 2016 primaries.