This past year has been a tough one for the American Jewish community. We have seen shootings in multiple synagogues, increased anti-Semitic events from the proliferations of swastikas to Jews being assaulted on the streets of New York, all the way to increased anti-Israel activity across college campuses and within our public political discourse. These events have, understandably evoked strong reactions and responses from the Jewish community. Yet, as we know, Judaism and the Jewish communtiy means much more than just responding to anti-Semitism. Positive ideas, morals, and innovative programs have always been a staple of Judaism, as Jews have never allowed themselves to be defined by the lachrymosity brought about by anti-Semitic activity.
I sat down with Jason Moss, the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys for an in-depth look on his unique perspective regarding the Jewish community, both this past year and looking forward.
We have just come off one of the hardest years in recent memory for the American Jewish community in terms of the proliferation of anti-Semitism throughout the country. How has that affected you and the community in San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys?
Jason: Watching what has transpired this past year has been troublesome simply in terms of how Jews are viewed in a broader sense. I see Jewish Federation’s role as being the voice for Jews in our community and when I see an increase of hate towards Jews it’s alarming and concerning.
There have only been a couple isolated incidents here in our local community—but any is too many. The true concern is that people feel increasingly comfortable doing anti-Semitic things and spreading anti-Semitic ideas. Just as an example, this past year there were fliers posted on light poles right outside a couple of our local synagogues full of stereotypical anti-Semitic tropes—something straight out of the 1930s. Something like this is concerning because people are taking their time to go out and post this around the city, and the fact that they think this type of action is reasonable is troublesome to say the least. What used to be on the periphery is now mainstream. Now it’s in our backyard and our community is bothered by it, they have a feeling of helplessness, not knowing what to do.
All of this has caused some people to pause and consider if they are comfortable being at Jewish events because they fear something bad will happen. Especially after the Tree of Life shooting last October, people’s fears have been triggered and they feel that they cannot go to events without a strong security detail. Prior to our recent Jewish Food Festival, I received an array of questions about security. People are simply concerned about feeling safe. There is now a significant cultural shift in the Jewish world, especially synagogues, because of this change. It’s a problem because synagogues need to be warm and welcoming while also needing to ensure that they are secure.
You touched on a number of difficult and important issues here. The need for increased security is one that Jewish communities across the country are dealing with, and could be especially hard for smaller communities with limited resources. I know that your Jewish Federation has led many initiatives in the community, especially around security and leadership training. Can you tell me a bit about them?
Jason: Last December we brought our Jewish Professionals together to discuss security. Jewish Federation ran an active shooter training, discussed protocols, and helped discuss what various communal leaders are going to do moving forward. This event culminated in the establishment of a new Community Security Council where representatives from our community partners can come together and learn from one another. The committee now meets quarterly to discuss these issues.
More broadly, the shootings last year forced people to constantly be thinking about security. We now plan as if something is going to happen—and that culture shift is a very difficult thing. I always tell the community leaders to be upfront and honest about what’s going on, allowing people to share concern and grief while also discussing what is necessary to protect institutions. All of this while also ensuring that people feel like they are at home within the Jewish community.
While being responsive to attacks on the community is important, it is crucial to recognize that Judaism and Jewish community is more than simply responding to anti-Semitism. What are some ways in which you are proactive in terms of events or highlight some of the positive aspects of Judaism?
Jason: Three programs stand out to me. The first was our Holocaust remembrance event: Every Person Has A Name. This event brought the community together for something that had never been done in our community before. It gave people an outlet, allowing participants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In a way this was a direct response to the anti-Semitism we were discussing earlier since it was done in a very public forum and definitely helped give people a way to recall the past and remember. Also, importantly, we did it in January to commemorate the UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day in order to avoid conflict with any synagogue’s Yom Hashoah events.
The second event was our Jewish Food Festival—a pure celebration of Judaism via food and culture. The sheer joy that people had from being there and the scale of participation was amazing. While the original goal was to run this every other year, we decided that we needed to run it again in 2020 because of the overwhelming positive feedback. Organizations came together, Jews and non-Jews attended, everyone was there to simply celebrate Judaism via food. It was also a great opportunity to dispel faulty beliefs about Jews and even introduce people, both Jews and non-Jews, to Jewish foods such as kugel, cholent, gefilte fish, and rugelach.
The last event I want to highlight is PJ Library and PJ Our Way. Through this initiative we are now engaging families in a different way—by providing books as a way for families with young children to connect directly to something Jewish. Kids are excited to go to the mailbox, looking for something mailed directly to them, and each month receive something Jewish. It’s been great to see the impact on the families, as crossing the initial threshold into the Jewish community can be difficult but if they can get in at an easy entry point, they are in. There’s also zero pressure – we are just excited they have found their way in. And, if and when they are ready to take that next step, we are ready to help them with whatever they wish to participate in.
Given the events of this past year have you noticed any changes in attendance or participation in one way or another?
Jason: National studies are showing that a significant percentage of Jews have contemplated hiding their Judaism in public. In our community, being so geographically spread out and all, I can only imagine that this is the case for many. This is why giving people the space to engage at their own comfort level is important and one that we have tried to stress in a variety of ways through our initiatives.
Switching gears for a moment the Jewish Federation in San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys is in a unique situation in terms of its geographical proximity to LA, one of the biggest Jewish communities in the country. How do you create a strong and tight-knit community with its own energy and vigor that isn’t dependent on or constantly in the shadows of nearby LA?
Jason: We can’t replicate other communities. Primarily, we try and engage our community where they are at. Even more so we relish the idea that we have a strong understanding of what our community is and what they want and expect from the leadership. Best of all, people here know each other and everything feels very Hamish (homey)—even though we are so spread out.
There is really a feeling of welcoming and excitement about the community engagement. If people do want something we can’t provide, it is nice to know that LA is close by and we are not isolated but we also have the unique opportunity to build a strong community here.
What are you looking forward to this next year as a leader in the community?
Jason: I’m hoping that the feeling of hatred and lack of acceptance begins to dissipate. As hatred gets revealed for being a fundamental lack of acceptance of others—we can diminish fears and begin to move our nation into an uplifted state. I’m hoping that there will be fewer instances of anti-Semitism, but I’m also realistic and don’t believe that thousands of years of anti-Semitism will disappear instantly. The more people call out anti-Semitism, the more people will be more aware of the damage.
We need to move to a place of acceptance of people and ideas different from our own. I’m reminded of a great scene from Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye tells two people arguing that they are both correct. Hearing this, a third person tells Tevye that it is impossible for them to both be correct. Tevye immediately responds, “You are correct too!”
On a local level, I’m excited about the impact we have had on the lives of our community and that people have begun to see and understand the role the Jewish Federation plays in our community. I hope people continue to see the types of opportunities that are available in our community and that more people realize that engaging Jewishly – whether through synagogues, books, the Jewish Federation, etc. can only benefit all of us.
I want people to be able to be proud of being Jewish without fear. And I’m confident that our Jewish Federation will continue to work hard to do that in a way that is of interest and inspiration to the local Jewish community and beyond.
Daniel levine is A contributing writer to JLife Magazine.