City Life

To be Jewish in America

A Rabbi recollects on her personal experiences

Our country recently saw violent anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nazi flags, Nazi salutes, shouts of “Sieg Heil” and a banner with the words, “Jews are Satan’s children” have frightened Jews across the nation. It was a potent reminder to the rest of the country that anti-Semitism is alive and well in the United States. But the Jewish community needs no reminder; we’ve known it all along. 

As a rabbi who has served congregations in small towns around the country, I’ve seen the impact of anti-Semitism on Jewish communities large and small. I grew up in heavily Jewish northern New Jersey, and I admit I was a little naïve about what life is like for Jews in other places.

One of my pulpits was in Fort Smith, Arkansas. On weekends, I would fly into Fort Smith, rent a car and drive to the store owned by the head of the temple to pick up the temple’s key. The store was called Mr. Bob’s Men’s Wear, but the owner’s name was Mort. One time I asked if Mr. Bob was the original owner. Mort replied no, he himself was the original owner. But he thought the store’s name should be something short and easy to pronounce. “You mean like Mort?” I asked with a chuckle. “Well, you know, people here in the South wouldn’t know how to say Mort,” he answered. I thought it was strange, but when I told this story to my brother, he said, “Dummy, they wanted a name that didn’t sound Jewish.” Oh, right!

The next year, my pulpit was in Marion, Indiana. When I arrived, the local paper decided to write a feature on “the new rabbi in town.” They came to the temple, interviewed me, took a photo and left. When the article appeared on the front page of the paper, I asked the president of the temple if she was pleased. She said, “Well, you know, some of our members were a little nervous. We like to keep a low profile around here and not draw too much attention to the Jewish community.” Ah, yes!

This is the reality of our lives and always has been. Most of us look white and privileged, and in many ways, we are, but there are still so many ways in which we are and always will be the “other.” No matter how much we Jews, as a community, have achieved in this country, we must be on guard at all times.

This fear is deeply rooted in the long history of anti-Semitism in America, starting with our colonial beginnings when Peter Stuyvesant tried to keep 23 Jewish refugees out of New Amsterdam. It extends to religious tests that kept Jews from voting and holding public office far into the 19th century. And it continued through restrictive covenants and quotas that kept Jews out of certain neighborhoods and universities into the mid-20th century. State-sanctioned anti-Semitism was not violent, as in the pogroms of Europe, but it was present nonetheless. 

The 20th century saw the lynching of Leo Frank, two years after Frank was falsely accused of murder in 1913; 22,000 Nazis rallying in Madison Square Garden in 1939; and Nazis planning to march through Skokie, Illinois, home to a large contingent of Holocaust survivors, in 1977. Then in 1999, a white supremacist fired a semiautomatic weapon in a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, wounding five people, including three children.

In my work with the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, some of the churches have been discussing the need to put locks on their front doors, among other security measures. The question was raised as to whether we should consider what to do if someone started shooting at the church, or was that being paranoid? I thought: Welcome to my world. Our temple doors are always locked, a camera shows us who is at the door and you need a code to get in. Synagogues around the country hold active-shooter trainings for their staffs. For us, this is business as usual.

These precautions help us to guard against the most overt and violent forms of anti-Semitism. Harder to guard against are the day-to-day incidents that confront us. Here in Madison, we are not immune. In September, a memorial near the Gates of Heaven synagogue was spray-painted with swastikas. Less than three years ago, 25 homes were defaced with swastikas and racial slurs. 

It is undeniable that the U. S. has been a place of refuge for Jews. The First Amendment has allowed Jews to flourish here as in few other countries and eras in history. This is what most people see and know about American Jews. What they cannot ever really know is the extent to which we can never be fully safe and secure. Charlottesville showed us the extreme. But anti-Semitism—as evidenced by instances both large and small—has been here all along.

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis is president of the Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice board of directors. She wrote this piece from her personal viewpoint.

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