BECAUSE WE'RE AMIDST the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, Sid Schwarz, the founding rabbi of my synagogue, naturally used the festival as the focus of his d'var torah (or explication of the Torah) during Shabbat services yesterday.
He pointed to a directive from the Talmud in which the rabbis instruct Jews to place their lit menorahs either in a window or doorway where their light can be seen by passersby outside. But the rabbis’ prescriptions around the ritual of lighting the menorah qualified that Jews could keep their menorahs hidden indoors in times – and places – of danger. Just as all rules of Jewish law can be abrogated to save a person's life, the rabbis weren't going to require an act that could draw the hostility of others.
With this as background, Schwarz set out to conduct an informal survey, asking this congregation of 21st century, Washington, D.C.-area Jews to say whether or not they feel they are living in a time and a place of danger to them because of their religious identity. Figuratively speaking, how comfortable do we feel putting our menorahs in our windows?
On a scale of 1 (being most secure) and 10 (being highly insecure), a show of hands suggested that they range somewhere between 1 and 3 -- though the vast majority said 1. Some commented that their assessment is situational. That is, when in other countries -- not just the ones you'd think of mostly around the Middle East where anti-Semitism is overt and intense, but even in Europe, where there have been widely reported instances of anti-Jewish hostility in recent years – some said they would register a much higher number, above 5 to be sure. And one visitor from West Virginia pointed out that Jewish institutions there have been vandalized with swastikas and the like, so he’s feeling a bit less "welcome" than many.
If anything, I felt in the room as sense that, as has long been the case, the United States remains one of the most hospitable places for Jews in history, and certainly in our time. (Notwithstanding the tiny minority of extremists who have always had it out for us – and probably always will.) But I also felt a twinge of worry in the air, a sinking feeling that, while we are as welcome as ever in nearly every part of American life, there could be a growing misunderstanding of Jews that could grow into something more troubling.
A more empirical barometer of American Jewish confidence in our surroundings, at least based on somewhat narrow measures, suggests just the opposite. According to a 2010 survey of American Jews by the American Jewish Committee, 25 percent said they think anti-Semitism in the U.S. is currently “a very serious problem,” while 66 percent said it “somewhat of a problem.” Only nine percent said it is “not a problem at all.” In 2000, when AJC asked those same questions, the responses arguably sounded less confident: 32 percent said anti-Semitism is a “serious problem,” 63 percent said “somewhat of a problem,” and just five percent said “not a problem at all.”
That apparent easing of anxiety among American Jews over the last decade could be a function of the aging and dying off of an older generation who grew up in a time of overt, institutionalized anti-Semitism in American life. Either that, or the 2000 or 2010 figures (or both) were anomalous, reactions to passing episodes. In that case, I should probably look a bit more closely – but I will leave that for another day.
I’d like to point out yet another indicator of how secure American Jews feel today: our architecture.
At Beit Hatfusot in Tel Aviv, the Museum of the Diaspora, there is a large room filled with tabletop models of historic synagogues from many places and times where Jews lived. When I visited there years ago, woman from the museum pointed out that the structures most overtly identified as Jewish and seemingly open to the public were those built when and where Jews were feeling secure – even if, ironically, many of these building were burnt to the ground centuries later in pogroms or other convulsions of anti-Semitism. Still other structures appeared relatively anonymous and more fortress-like, suggesting an environment in which the Jews of the day felt more vulnerable.
Where, then, along that scale should we rate the architecture of today’s American Jewish religious and communal buildings? In many ways, I’d argue, it shows we're feeling secure, but with an asterisk.
This could be considered something of a golden age of Jewish architecture. Buildings constructed or redesigned in the last decade or so display some pretty good aesthetic sensibilities (a departure from many of the truly hideous structures the Jewish community put up in the decade or two after World War II).
More importantly, they also reflect that Jews are finally feeling at home in America: unafraid to express their identity publicly. Many of the buildings – synagogues, community centers, Federation buildings – stand out proudly and conspicuously among the rest.
But here’s the asterisk. Today’s sparkling Jewish buildings are now surrounded by large boulders or reinforced fences, designed to ward off attackers in vehicles; increasing numbers have full-time security officers, elaborate door-entry and alarm systems and other measures to detect a threat – or combat it should it materialize.
Many of these measures, which cost the Jewish community dearly, came about in the wake of 9/11, when we learned to worry about even the most remote and even unimaginable threat. Also, there have been periodic violent attacks on a number of Jewish buildings in recent years, which only underlines our resolve to protect ourselves. And rising attacks against Jews around the world understandably ring loudly in the ears of our communal leaders here.
What we see, then, is a collective indicator of how Jews are feeling in America and the ambivalence we have felt in many places and times throughout history. Whether it reflects the true state of our existence at this time and in this place is something we can debate - at another time.