I’m a congregational rabbi and right now, I’m supposed to be thinking about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I’m supposed to be in a state of spiritual relaxation, eagerly anticipating hearing the sounds of our melodies and looking forward to seeing the warm faces of my congregants. But instead, like so many Jewish leaders, I’m thinking about security. Instead of thinking about liturgy, I have to think about lockdown doors. Instead of thinking about prayer, I have to think about private security guards. During this time of unprecedented antisemitism in America, Jews more and more often feel the need to obsess about physical safety–just for the act of being Jewish–and it’s heartbreaking.
These thoughts about how to secure the Jewish people can be pervasive and unyielding. They are a financial and emotional weight that hover over us. And the concerns are justified. At least 49 synagogues have been evacuated in the last 2 months due to bomb threats. In 2022, Anti-Defamation League(ADL) tabulated 3,697 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States—a 36% increase from the 2,717 incidents tabulated in 2021. This is the highest number on record since the ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. This makes it nearly impossible to compartmentalize feelings of anxiety and stress or push them aside even for a brief while.
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But, we can’t allow ourselves to be consumed by distress either. As we approach the Jewish new year, instead of simply ceding our sacred time to worry and fear, this is the exact season to do the one thing that true antisemites deplore: to be boldly, joyously, outwardly Jewish. This year at the High Holidays, instead of being trepidatious, I’ll have a little extra pep in my step. I won’t let antisemitism dampen this sacred period, and neither should the Jewish people.
Afterall, one good way to fight antisemitism is to do something Jewish—publicly. Consider this outward pride in your identity as an act of subversion against the growing temptation to hide our Jewish selves. Go out into this world and wear your Jewish star necklace, show off your chai tattoo, or wear your kippah on the street. Tell people you are Jewish or that you are raising a Jewish family. Use words like “mishegas,” “yalla,” “tzedakah,” “l’chaim,” or “tzotchke,” even when you are around non-Jews. Stand with others outside and listen to the sound of the shofar as we perform our ritual of repentance. The threat of antisemitism has the power to push our Judaism beneath the surface; this year, we should rebel and raise the flag of Judaism even higher. This is how we will find our power—and our peace.
For me, I find this sense of peace by worshipping shoulder to shoulder with my community. Instead of stress, I notice all the good around me. I notice that when a congregant loses their place in the prayerbook, someone else helps them find it. I notice one mother offering to hold another mother’s baby, just to give her a minute break. I notice that when an elderly person can’t easily climb the stairs, several others quickly jump up to help. And when I notice all of these good things, at least for a moment, my mind is transported away from all of the worries and towards contentment and calm.
I remember several years ago I saw a bomb-sniffing dog comb through the sanctuary in my synagogue for the very first time. It broke my heart, because there is a prohibition against dogs entering a sanctuary—and because I knew it was necessary and I was glad it was there. Violent antisemitism is real, and we need to protect ourselves. And so many Jewish communities have done just that—we’ve consulted with security professionals, we’ve coordinated with our local police departments, we’ve undergone multiple security trainings, and we’ve implemented physical interventions to keep our community secure. But we can’t let security overwhelm the free and full expression of our religious rites.
This season, let’s give ourselves a rest from worry and embrace being Jewish in the spirit of celebration and joy as much as we can. We will come together and sing our songs, recite our prayers, perform our rituals. Maybe even if you aren’t a regular synagogue goer this is the year to participate. Jews in America shouldn’t be running scared. Rather, we should work to find our own sense of security and at least a few moments of peace that we need so badly right now.
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