I don’t have to wonder how my synagogue is responding to anti-Semitism and its rise in American culture. I can visually see its consequence. Where gates did not exist, they are now present, forming a concentric circle of sorts that lead to the center, the place where Shabbat is held. But first there are the barriers and the individual passwords that are needed to pass through them. Once in, I can forget about the gates and the security guards. I can briefly forget why we need them. The power of Shabbat and its communal experience take hold. The mere fact of knowing that my community of Jewish people are not the only ones joining together for what Jews around the world are observing in some form or another transcends moments of fear and worry. Whether it’s Israelis living in a nation where trains and buses do not run on Shabbat, those who enjoy dinners with family, or even the Jewish person who can only take a few seconds to think, “today is Shabbat,” we are joined through our shared experiences. We are Jews. We are an ancient people. We are communal. We belong to each other.
I know I’m not the only one that has been thinking about the rise of anti-Semitism: we have no other choice. With the tragedies in Pittsburgh, San Diego and Blaze Bernstein’s murder, to name a few, Jewish communities have been forced to take action. And I must not be the only person pondering the new definitions that are used to describe where we’re at as an American mainstream society as well as the people who engage in acts of violence towards us. I cannot stop thinking about the phrase “the new normal,” and how it seems like we seem to be socially accepting this “new normal.” – A normal that brings to mind Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “When fair is foul and foul is fair.”
Since its inception in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been tracking and recording instances of anti-Semitism. The ADL has offices nationwide and offers updated information on incidents of anti-Semitism, hate and discrimination that affect other ethnic groups as well as the LGBTQ community. An article on the ADL’s website discusses the rise of white supremacist propaganda on U.S. college campuses. The article states that there has been a 7% increase since 2016, in white supremacist propaganda materials on campuses and that 34 of the 166 incidents that the ADL has documented in 2019, occurred at California colleges.
The ADL provides a number of services for communities. It has an office in Los Angeles and works with schools, cities within Los Angeles County, police departments and other faith communities, through sensitivity training and various collaborations.
I have wondered, though, if individual communities were addressing the issue as well. For example, how is anti-Semitism being approached and/or talked about in various communities? Who does one reach out to, besides the local authorities, if they have experienced anti-Semitism? In order for me to have a better understanding I contacted the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. On a misty grey morning this past June, I was honored to meet with Jason Moss, the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.
What got you into this line of work? What is your guiding philosophy?
Being Jewish has always been an important part of who I am. I was provided opportunities to connect with my local Jewish community and wanted to provide the same opportunities to others. My guiding principle is to provide community members an opportunity to connect in whatever way is meaningful to them. If I can get someone to walk through the door, and make their experience meaningful, I have the opportunity to share with them what else is available… when they are ready.
What programs does the Jewish Federation have? What is the community like?
We are a unique community. The Jewish community is geographically spread out between Glendale to Rancho Cucamonga and south to Whittier. Our goal is reaching the Jewish community through various programs that might interest the spectrum of the community. We offer programs such as Jewish Book Festival, Camp Gan Shalom, PJ Library and PJ Our Way, Women’s Forum, Cultural Arts (which includes our JFed Players Community Theatre Ensemble, the Jewish Youth Orchestra, and Kol HaEmek), Festival of Jewish Music, Every Person Has a Name (our 25-hour Holocaust Commemoration and Vigil), Shabbaton (our retreat weekend for the community’s 3rd – 9th graders), Jewish Food Festival, and random other programs.
How do you approach acts of anti-Semitism that involve your community?
When the Jewish Federation is contacted to let us know that someone has been a victim or witness to anti-Semitism, I speak with them to learn more about what occurred. We discuss what options there are and how they would like me to handle it. Sometimes it means reaching out to a school principal and Superintendent if an incident occurs in a school. I also always reach out to the ADL and let them know what has happened. I try to provide as much support as I can to everyone involved.
Have you seen or experienced an increase of anti-Semitism in your community?
No, but there has been an increase in anti- Israel sentiment on a few of our local university campuses like Cal Poly Pomona, Occidental College, and Pitzer College.
Has there been enough partnering with other faiths or the community at large around education of Judaism?
Our community has a strong connection with other faiths and communities through the various interfaith groups many of our synagogues are a part of. Interfaith groups are very helpful. There’s a real sense that we are there for each other.
What shifts have you seen in how the Jewish community views anti-Semitism? Is there any normalizing from the community around this behavior?
While synagogues and other Jewish institutions have had security plans, the attack at the Tree of Live synagogue in Pittsburgh reminded all of us of the need to look at, evaluate, and possibly update our organizations’ security protocols. At first, I feel like many people felt both sad and helpless of what they could do. Unfortunately, due to the frequency in which these attacks and other acts of hate have occurred, it seems that there is a sense this is the new normal… that it is just the way it now is.
Have there been shifts in the public perception of the Jewish community?
I would like to think so. There have been slow and steady shifts via the exposure of Jews in the public space. We have acculturated into American culture. But I fear that that perception gets skewed because of people’s view of Israel.
What influence has mainstream media played on the issue of anti-Semitism?
I think more people are aware of it and better understand that it is happening. However, I feel that it has been normalized by the frequency in which it is occurring and people feel a sense of helplessness that nothing can be done to stop it.
My interview with Mr. Moss highlighted paths to combatting anti-Semitism: The first is connecting with others in our individual communities, partnering to find solutions to issues that affect us all. The second is for us, the Jewish people, to connect with each other in any way that we can, providing each other support and strengthening our community.
SUZANNE ZAZUETA IS a contributing writer to JLife magazine.