Difficult Conversations for Difficult Times

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By Tamar Fox and Miriam Steinberg-Egeth

The day after the presidential election, one of us was walking her dog and found a swastika spray-painted on the sidewalk, two blocks from her house. It was already a strange day, but when she saw it, she felt the ground tilt out from under her. Anti-Semitism was right in front of her in Center City Philadelphia, in a way that would have seemed unthinkable just seconds before.

Months later, when the Jewish community reeled at news of defaced headstones in local Jewish cemeteries, she had the same feeling again. And again, in the wake of the racist and anti-Semitic rally in Charlottesville, Va. “Where am I?” she asked herself. “What can I do? Am I safe?”


The night of the Charlottesville rally, when the other one of us read the news, heard the chants and saw the angry mob on TV, she couldn’t believe that this was current events, and yet, the immediacy pushed her into action. She texted friends, rabbis and Jewish professionals: “Who else feels this way? How quickly can we respond?”

Over the course of the past year, a dedicated group of progressive Jewish activists in Philly have gathered in various configurations and with varied goals to support each other as we struggle with these questions.

A few months ago, we began focusing our discussions on how to expand our conversations to bring together other Jews from our community at this complicated time. One of the things that immediately emerged was that we were all worried about the rise in anti-Jewish incidents and sentiments (in addition to our concerns about the larger political issues impacting the country), and we imagined these concerns were impacting our fellow Jews as well.

Beyond the fears inherent in seeing neo-Nazis taking to the streets chanting anti-Jewish epithets, we are concerned about the ways in which anti-Semitism can make it hard for Jews to focus on other issues, including being allies to other oppressed communities.

To be sure, we acknowledge that anti-Semitism itself is not new and has never really gone away. Most, if not all, of the people involved in these initial conversations had experienced some form of anti-Semitism before events took a turn for the worse, or have family histories that include fleeing from oppression. Still, something about the openness of the anti-Semitism in America at this particular moment has felt new and challenging and worthy of addressing.

After Charlottesville, several of us came together to plan what felt like an emergency response for Jews and our neighbors. We wanted to acknowledge the anti-Semitism that was rampant in Charlottesville, and the racism and bigotry aimed at other communities that made those events possible. Our internal conflict between being targets and being allies felt like it was going unacknowledged.

In the meantime, we were actively involved in other causes, and we worried about the potential for burnout. To address these competing needs, we focused our next gathering on understanding how our history of oppression might be impacting us today, and on developing coping strategies to complement our activist goals.

Together, we built an event that would acknowledge the intergenerational trauma that has been passed down to us as Jews, from the Holocaust, and from pogroms and acts of anti-Semitism that have piled up over centuries, from intimate experiences in our own family histories and from the broader communal memories we share.

If we took some time to understand our fears, could we respond differently in the future? Could we figure out different strategies for fighting our fears, whether through political activism, spirituality, Jewish study, preparedness, or the power of music for social change? Could we empower each other to move forward by naming these fears and deciding, together, to push on? Could we bring in others who were worried about the current political climate but hadn’t even found their access point to making their voices heard?

We strongly believe the answer to these questions is “yes.” Whether you consider yourself politically active, whether you’ve felt the effects of anti-Semitism directly, as Jews, we are all impacted by the past and, as Americans, we are all impacted by the present reality in our country.

We hope everyone who participates in our events — our last one was on Feb. 18 — comes away with a deeper understanding of anti-Semitism and its current impact on American Jews. We hope that we can create supportive relationships so that all the Jews in Philadelphia know where to turn when something scary happens.

For those unable to attend, we want you to know that these conversations are happening. We want every Jew in Philadelphia to feel supported and not to feel isolated. We want those who feel afraid of speaking out for refugees and immigrants, who feel afraid to attend a rally because of the possibility of anti-Semitism from the right or the left, who feel afraid of being singled out as a Jew — to know that you are not alone, to know that our Jewish values compel us to speak out for the stranger, for the oppressed, for our neighbors and for each other.

We want to empower Jews to move beyond our fears and to find our voice for speaking out strongly wherever oppression appears. 

Tamar Fox and Miriam Steinberg-Egeth are both active in the local Jewish community. Their civic conversations are not sponsored by any organizations.  

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank for for the workshop on Feb. 18. It was empowering, healing and compassionate. I hope that this is not the last such event.

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