DON’T BE AFRAID
I know I have written about this before, but the time has come again. My readers in and around Northern Virginia have just been touched by what has occurred in so many other communities over the last month: Gesher Jewish Day School (the original Jewish day school in Northern Virginia) was evacuated this morning following a bomb threat. There was no bomb. After a well-planned response, the children returned to their classes and activities. A similar occurrence took place at Charles E Smith Jewish Day School’s upper campus in Rockville, MD. The JCC in Rockville was targeted in a previous hoax.
My kids are long past the age of school and not yet at the age of having family members at a JCC during the day. But I have been where parents and staff members are. With apologies for repetition, here is my story.
The Jewish Community Center in Annandale, Virginia was completed in 1993. It was the first new JCC constructed in a long time and the excitement in the community – including from my in-laws, who had been on the ground floor of founding the institution a generation earlier – was unbounded. Of course, it did not take long before someone (teenaged vandals, as it turns out) defaced the new building with symbols of racism and anti-semitism, including mistakes in their spray-painting that confirmed that they were as ignorant as they were bigoted.
The community, Jew and non-Jew alike, rallied a couple of nights later in support of the JCC and in the middle of the program, as our representative to Congress held forth, a bomb threat was phoned into the JCC. Of course. The building was evacuated to the parking lot where the program continued. (The same idiots who sprayed the building made the call. They were caught.)
With me that evening were my two daughters and my wife’s parents. My wife was home with our preschooler. When the rally ended, we got into our car and drove off, headed home on the Capital Beltway. A safe distance from the JCC, but traveling 55 mph, my eight-year-old burst into tears and cried out, “Why would anyone want to hurt us?”
I had been pretty philosophical about the events to that point. But now I felt the rage in my toes travel all the way my body until it was ready to explode through the top of my head. How dare these cowardly dunderheads steal the innocence of my child!
The police were great. The press was diligent. The non-Jewish community was outraged and sympathetic. But I had to look up a lot of details about this event 23 years later. My rage on that night, on the other hand, is immediately and viscerally accessible.
Parents of day school and preschool students, I know what you are feeling. Most of us have never experienced the virulent Jew-hatred that is so much a part of our history. But the fear of it has been inculcated in us so that our wariness is never far from the surface. And because the brand of anti-semitism most usual in this country is addressed by well-established non-profits filled with lawyers and scholars who speak to sympathetic police, press and community leaders, we are unfamiliar with the need to defend ourselves directly – or flee – that our family ancestors knew first-hand when that history was being lived. So we are furious and we are casting about for what to do beyond the security briefings and the statements by our defense organizations.
This recent spate of anti-semitic terrorizing has been enabled by the campaign season just concluded and by some of the people who have attached themselves to the current President of the United States. If you are a Trump supporter, read that sentence again so that you do not misrepresent what I wrote. Here is fact – not alternate fact, not fake news, not “lying” – the current administration has done precious little to distance themselves from overt and subtle threats to non-Christian minorities in this country. What more could they do? Well, in 1993, the President of the United States sent a letter of solidarity to the JCC that was read at the ill-fated rally. The current President took a month to answer a direct question about anti-semitism.
The bomb threats and the cemetery vandalism and the alt-right and the understatement of support from the federal government may make you worry that Jewish life in the United States has reached the end of the road. Do not be afraid. A very small minority of people with proximity to power may wish us ill, but the vast majority of Americans, including almost all of them who voted for the current President, do not. Evangelical Christians, Muslims, Protestants, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists (to name a few) are not having any of it, just as we Jews are having none of the discrimination directed against them. The good news is that when it comes to standing up for others, as good as our community can be, we are not better than everyone else. You do not need to be a Jew to recognize prejudice.
But please let me not sound too sanguine. The threats we are experiencing are not because of a new wave of anti-semitism. This bigotry has been contained under a layer of permafrost that prevented it from poking its ugly shoots above the surface. When political climate change thawed the surface, the seeds of prejudice took first advantage to sprout like invasive species in an ecosystem where natural predators have been eliminated. Few as these dangerous morons are, if the weeds are not pulled, they will flourish. And this administration is out of the weed-pulling business.
And your anger, your fury, your protective rage for the stolen innocence of our children is real and it should be maintained. Don’t calm down. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t wish it way. Don’t repress it. What is indeed in your hands is the ability to prevent more of the same. Eventually, we will have better gardeners, but only thanks to you.
That’s what I did. I was always ready for a good cause, but that experience at the JCC rekindled my passion on behalf of justice and kindness and every version of the Golden Rule. It led me to where I sit today: leading Interfaith Alliance, a national organization seeking to preserve faith and freedom and the positive role of religion in society.
But more important than what that rage about my sweet little girl did to me is what that evening did to her. Somewhere in her heart a switch was thrown. She has devoted her life to preventing people from suffering. If she was afraid that night, she caught some of the rage the next morning and it has animated the choices she has made at every stage of her life.
So at the risk of sounding like the baby boomer that I am, don’t be afraid. By temperament and example, teach your children well.