The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The Chabad synagogue of Poway, Calif. A Chanukah celebration in Monsey, N.Y. A march in Charlottesville, Va. A kosher grocery store in Jersey City, N.J.
For Jewish Americans, these have come to symbolize some of our worst fears of antisemitism – deadly attacks on our community, motivated by hate.
Our shock and anger only intensify as we read the Anti-Defamation League’s Annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, which reports numbers escalating year after year. In just the past couple of weeks, we have seen a menorah at Dartmouth College shot up by a pellet gun. A menorah lighting in Kentucky was disrupted by someone who shouted antisemitic slurs and ran over a man’s leg. A synagogue in Iowa was defaced with antisemitic graffiti on the first day of the Chanukah holiday.
As leading Jewish organizations in the region, The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and the Baltimore Jewish Council collectively decided that our system and our community cannot sit idly by. To that end, we felt it was our urgent responsibility to convene the leaders of our community in spring 2019 to discuss our response to antisemitism.
The initial summit brought together more than 75 top representatives of synagogues, organizations, and institutions – rabbis, executive directors, board presidents, elected officials and more. The group heard from Senator Ben Cardin, who outlined antisemitism at a global level. ADL’s top regional official recounted the latest national and state statistics. The Associated’s president, Marc Terrill, and the Baltimore Jewish Council’s executive director, Howard Libit, reviewed the situation in our region and some of the efforts that our community has already been undertaking to fight antisemitism and hate.
We then asked all of the participants to break into groups and discuss the questions of what we are doing that is working in the fight against antisemitism, what we are doing that isn’t working, and what new efforts should we try. Ultimately, all of the groups reported that their tabletop brainstorming focused around three primary areas: education, advocacy, and allyship.
Following the summit, we were asked to serve as co-chairs of a task force of community lay leaders and Jewish professionals, with the charge of putting together a strategy and plan for us to step up our fight against antisemitism.
Prior to coming up with a strategy, we quickly realized that we needed to agree on a definition of antisemitism. An incredibly complex question. We spent many months debating what constitutes antisemitism and – just as importantly – what does not.
As we have said many times when making presentations about our task force’s work, the definition and statemenact that we produced is not what any of task force member would have chosen to write individually. But the final document represents a consensus we can accept and sets standards for both our Jewish community and our community at-large.
We then focused on the areas that the initial summit centered on in terms of combatting antisemitism: education, advocacy and allyship. Along the way, we added a fourth important area – tracking and reporting to ensure people know how to report incidents and that we are keeping accurate data to better respond.
Our action plan for the community contains a significant number of ambitious recommendations. We must do more to educate both our own Jewish community, and the world around us. We must advocate for laws that will help fight antisemitism and hate, from tougher anti-hate criminal laws to stronger requirements for education about the Holocaust.
Our Jewish values call for us to stand up with other communities that encounter hate and fight with them. Also, to have allies, one must be an ally. Combating bigotry, in all its forms, is a core Jewish value. The Jewish community cannot stand on the sidelines as others are attacked, and yet still expect others to come to our defense. Dialogue and coalition-building with other communities must be a priority. We know that The Associated and the Baltimore Jewish Council cannot do this alone. The task force’s recommendations will require all elements of our community to work together. We are fortunate to have strong national partners like ADL who are willing to join our effort. It will take time, and we are working now to prioritize the recommendations and pull together the required financial and staffing resources.
It is also important to remember that, while fighting antisemitism is crucial, our fight must support – not overtake – our efforts at encouraging meaningful and joyous Jewish life.
The Baltimore Jewish community is alarmed by the uptick in antisemitism, prejudice and hate that we are seeing in our community, in our nation, and around the world. We are committed to educate, to confront, and to partner with allies. Together, we will push back against antisemitism and hate.
Rabbi Andrew Busch and Debra S. Weinberg were the co-chairs of the Baltimore Community Task Force on Antisemitism. Rabbi Busch is president of the Baltimore Jewish Council and a rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Debra S. Weinberg is the immediate past chair of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
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