By Daniel B. Markind
Only six hours after I attended the Stand Against Hate rally in Philadelphia following the vandalism of the Mount Carmel Jewish cemetery last month, I heard the news that a bullet was fired into a window at B’nai Israel Synagogue in Evansville, Ind. Almost 20 years ago I owned a house in Mt. Vernon, about 12 miles west of Evansville. I attended services at B’nai Israel. Both incidents, coming back to back, took on a very personal meaning. I was struck by the difference between how these acts feel in places with large Jewish populations and those without.
When I was there, the Evansville Jewish population was extremely small. Nestled in the southwest corner of Indiana, B’nai Israel serves the community in Southwestern Indiana, Southeastern Illinois and Northwestern Kentucky. During the late 1990s, Shabbat services were held sporadically. Aside from a weekly column in the newspaper by the rabbi, it was easy to not know the community existed at all. Having gone to high school in a Central New York town in which I was one of four Jews in a graduating class of 650, I was very familiar with that feeling. To many others it would be jarring.
Vandalism at a small-town synagogue strikes at the heart of the community. In small towns, the local synagogue takes on an oversized significance for one main reason — it is there. That a small Jewish community can support its own synagogue is a source of great pride. Unless you’ve ever been in such a place, you can’t truly appreciate that.
Here in Philadelphia, just one week after the Mount Carmel desecration, the local Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council drew 3,000 people to Independence Mall. Dignitaries who addressed the crowd included Gov. Tom Wolf and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. In a town like Evansville, that would not be possible.
In Philadelphia we were gratified to see support from Christian, Muslim, Hindu and other religious communities. Their presence enriched us and underscored the true meaning of the rally. Even without their attendance, however, we in the Philadelphia Jewish community could have put on the rally ourselves. Not so in Evansville. Without the buy-in from the non-Jewish community, the numbers are too small.
Whenever an anti-Semitic event happens in a small town, there is a disquieting sense of being very alone. Fortunately for me, I don’t remember a single one in my Central New York home. I grew to love and deeply respect my neighbors. Had there been a serious incident, it would have been doubly jarring. Like it or not, people outside the community don’t have that deep background of historical scapegoating drummed into their subconscious. It’s a feeling that can’t be described, an almost metaphysical connection. Whenever something like this happens, no matter how religious another Jewish person is, whether they believe in the basic precepts or even self-identify as Jewish, I know that deep in that person’s gut he or she feels as naked as I do.
I’m sure other ethnic and racial groups have similar existential elements of cohesion. It’s part of the ethos of any group that’s faced consistent discrimination. I’ve spent enough hours with my African-American friends to appreciate the connection they feel whenever a racial incident happens anywhere in the country, though I would never claim to know what it feels like to walk in their shoes.
What I do know is that as a nation we have to be extremely careful. Over the last few years, for whatever reason, the hatred of the bigots has been emboldened. The situation is not being helped by our fumbling political leadership. On both sides of the aisle, our “leaders” gain energy from those who prefer to pour salt into potential wounds rather than salve them. Little do they realize that each of us can find ourselves in a part of our great country where we are the isolated minority. Then animosity feels very different.
Much like those of us who attended the Philadelphia rally, it appears that leadership can only come from the reflection that each of us sees in the mirror each day.
Daniel B. Markind is an attorney in Center City.