A Community Against Hate

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A photo of the Western Wall in Jerusalem

“Urgent: Religious School Canceled Today, January 29, 2023,” read the subject line of the email I received at 9:27 a.m. At the kitchen table, I blinked sleep out of my eyes. The last-minute cancellation came with a stream of frantic texts from my friends asking if I had heard the news. Reading further, I discovered that “an act of antisemitic vandalism” had occurred at my temple—Temple Ner Tamid in New Jersey—at around three in the morning. The police were investigating, so no one was allowed in for Sunday morning services or classes.

As I absorbed this information, my initial feeling was disbelief. In a prosperous, progressive area like Montclair, New Jersey, antisemitism is supposed to be almost nonexistent; these things never happen here. Nothing had hit so close to home before. Not at my temple, I thought. There was no way.

Some quick Googling led me to images and video clips of a masked man throwing a Molotov cocktail at the front doors of the synagogue—not just random vandalism, but motivated arson. It felt surreal to see because I walk through those same doors every week for Hebrew School. Watching the clip over and over again, I didn’t know whether to feel relief that the fire went out on impact and the shatterproof windows held (and that the security cameras caught the man in the act), or fear that something like this might happen again and cause greater damage.

My Jewish friends and I joked, “We’re famous!” as we watched the views on the YouTube video of the security camera footage climb from 3k to 147k. Though the story was quickly subsumed by the relentless current of online news, it felt strangely validating to see that our synagogue was receiving the support and recognition we knew it had earned after withstanding the attack.

Although my friends and I all shared the same fears following this sudden confrontation with the reality of our vulnerability, we tried to be courageous for one another. The sniffles of tears shed in private and the stomach-churning anxiety of stepping foot back in the synagogue were concealed by masks of humor and strength, as if we could protect one another from the truth that we all knew anyway. This truth is all too present today. My cousin recently sent a video to our family group chat from his college campus in which a mass of marchers bearing swastikas and shouting hateful, antisemitic messages strode proudly down the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, using the Israel-Hamas War as cover for their hate. They proclaimed through their actions and words that Jewish students like my cousin would no longer be afforded the privilege of feeling safe on campus. These examples of mounting antisemitism have become more and more pressing in my life and community. While I still enjoy a level of safety compared to many others across the country and world, it has become difficult to imagine a future without a blanket of fear perpetually enshrouding the Jewish population.

The attack on my shul took place two days after International Holocaust Remembrance Day. At a meeting of the Jewish Student Union at school, we discussed how the attack resembled actions taken during Kristallnacht—the 1938 Night of Broken Glass, during which hundreds of synagogues in Europe were violently desecrated by Nazis. The attacker at our local temple, drawing from deep reserves of anger and resentment, did much the same: he sought to burn our place of worship—including the breathtaking stained glass of our sanctuary’s eastern wall—to the ground, terrorizing our community in the process.

In the weeks and months following the firebombing of my synagogue, my fear has given way to appreciation for my wider community. Even after the suspect was caught and put in custody, support continued to pour in. From my non-Jewish friends’ words of comfort to speeches from Congresspeople and even our U.S. Senator, we began to see this attack not just as a wake-up call but as a rallying cry for communal support. In addition to the physical reinforcement of the shul and implementation of higher security, our community was strengthened and more tightly woven together by our ongoing dedication to our culture and practice of our religion.

Perhaps most importantly, the enhanced community bonds literally forged by fire back in January have been put to good use to combat the current wave of antisemitism arising from the Israel-Hamas war. Though our phone screens flash with disheartening news stories about swastikas scrawled in high schools and other signs of hate, we continue to receive encouragement from both our temple leadership and the broader community.

While I appreciate that support, the attack on October 7th and subsequent acts of antisemitic terrorism have shown me and the rest of the worldwide Jewish community how fragile that support can be, and how quickly the freedom to practice our religion can be snatched away. When lighting the Chanukkah candles, safe in my home, I feel the weight of carrying on these traditions in the name of those who can’t any longer. And I realize how fortunate I am to bear this weight. Although my town has experienced its share of hate, including a literal firebomb attack on our temple, it is still a place where we live in relative safety and are free to speak our minds, support our homeland, maintain our traditions, and seek dialogue and reconciliation, rather than war, with neighbors who express different points of view.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from the past three years, it’s that people find a way to persevere in the face of events we might have found unimaginable just months or years ago. Despite unforeseen circumstances and endless unpredictability, life moves along, and we move with it. My synagogue didn’t stop for Covid—gracefully navigating the shift to Zoom programming—and similarly, it has not allowed this attack to inhibit its ability to provide a spiritual home for hundreds of families. Just two days after the attack, a “Rally Against Hate” was held at the temple, gathering members of different faiths and backgrounds to stand up against acts of bias and intolerance. The event was so well attended, and every room in the building so packed, that the crowd flowed out into the parking lot to view the speeches from interfaith leaders on video monitors. It was clear that my temple had built a system of support to help combat the religious prejudices we all face, despite our differences.

Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to stand in front of the Western Wall—the last remnant of the Second Temple in the Old City of Jerusalem and the most famous destroyed temple in the history of the Jewish people. 2,000 years later, I stood before Temple Ner Tamid, reckoning with the fact that the attacker had attempted to relegate our home to the same fate. But the name of our temple literally translates to “the eternal flame,” and I’ve realized that even if the hate driving our enemies persists, so too will the flame driving our community and our faith.

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