January 31, 2022

The Importance of Relationship Building in the Fight Against Antisemitism

Linda Scherzer JCRC Director

In the hours that followed the horrific hostage-taking event in Colleyville, Texas two weeks ago, as our community absorbed the central lesson of that terrible day, Jewish Federation’s Chief Security Officer Robert Wilson had never been busier. Whether setting up security town halls, consulting with rabbis, or helping synagogues apply for non-profit security grant funding to shore up protection, Bob’s work – ongoing for years – took on added urgency. Preparing for the unthinkable, as we saw through the heroic actions of the hostages, can literally save lives. Applying those lessons and securing the safety and security of our synagogues and Jewish businesses and institutions, is one of Federation’s highest priorities.

But strengthening the doors of our institutions is only one way that Federation is working to serve and protect our community. The other is by strengthening the fabric of civil society. This is the fundamental mission of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC).

At the core of what JCRC does, whether lobbying for non-profit security grant funding, fighting for social justice, combating antisemitism, or advocating for Israel, is the sacred task of building bridges among peoples of different faiths, ethnic groups, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

In an increasingly polarized country, where antisemitism has reached record highs, reaching out across communal divides helps create allies and deepen understanding. As one of the Colleyville hostages put it, in describing the interfaith work Rabbi Charlie had been engaged in for years, “When people know you, it’s harder to hate.”

Over the next several months, JCRC will double down on its relationship building work, seeking more opportunities to share space with other faith communities, celebrate holidays, join coalitions, and work together in common cause.

On March 22, our Community Leaders Against Antisemitism event will bring together professionals from higher education, high schools, local government, and religious faiths to discuss the issues each sector is facing and ways to combat hate. Our annual Labor Seder, planned for April 4, will once again share the story of the exodus from Egypt with labor leaders and union representatives. JCRC’s Interfaith Women’s Conversation, will continue meeting monthly, giving women from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish backgrounds space to discuss topics related to their faith traditions. And in March, we will take students from our Black Jewish Teen Dialogue group to Washington, D.C. to explore together the Holocaust Museum and Museum of African American History, continuing our discussions around racism and antisemitism.

While grateful for the outcome of the hostage-taking event, our community is shaken. For in addition to what we saw in Colleyville, and before that, in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Jersey City, we have seen what’s happening in our own communities. Disturbing acts of antisemitism – from swastikas inside schools and outside synagogues, to harassment of Jewish college students – have added to the community’s sense of fear.

And while today’s America is not Germany of 1938, as Deborah Lipstadt reassures us, if you’re not aware that 60 percent of the acts of hate in New Jersey are being directed at 2 percent of the population (ours), you’re simply not paying attention.

For those who are paying attention, and feeling increasingly worried, I will end with the story of the lesson I learned from two Federation events which took place on the same night, simultaneously, on two different Zoom calls. It was a strange and jolting juxtaposition of old antisemitism leading to the murder of six million Jews, with current events.

One was a security town hall briefing for members of our synagogue community, coordinated by our Chief Security Officer. The other was a talk by Holocaust survivor Luna Kaufman at an event co-sponsored with the Library of the Chathams, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

At first, I shook my head in disbelief, finding it hard to believe that hatred of Jews which led to the murder of Luna’s father, her sister, and 70 members of her extended family, should still exist in what I imagine to be an enlightened world.

But then, I took a closer look at the other Zoom screen. There, among the 75 Jewish members of our community were two officers from local law enforcement talking about increased patrols outside synagogues and regular contact with Jewish communal members.

Five days earlier, at another community gathering, were two of our Members of Congress, and two interfaith leaders – one Christian, one Muslim – all of whom reached out to us with a firm embrace, to condemn this surge of hate and stand shoulder to shoulder with our community.

No, this is not 1938. None of us is alone.

Together, we will strengthen one another and partner with people of good faith to fight back against antisemitism and hatred of every kind.

Your Federation is behind you. And we will be there to help lead the way.