Jewish organizations admit that though the increased presence of security through cameras, shatter-resistant glass and lighting in parking lots may be important in maintaining a secure campus, more is required to create a safe community.
As much as community safety means keeping intruders out, it also means welcoming people in to foster solidarity, leaders said.
“We can’t really have safety unless we have solidarity,” Jewish Community Relations Council Director Jason Holtzman said. “The problems or the threats posed to Jewish institutions, Jewish spaces are definitely a major problem, and it’s a problem that we share with other faith groups.”
A 2020 FBI report stated that 81 hate crimes were reported in Pennsylvania in 2020. Forty-five were reported in 2019.
“In recent years, Sikh temples have been targeted; African American churches and mosques have been attacked. Other churches from other denominations have all been targeted,” Holtzman said.
Following the Colleyville, Texas, hostage crisis at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Jan. 15, Philadelphia’s faith community coalesced to support the Jewish community, the most recent victims of hate.
Jewish organizations, including JCRC, received letters of solidarity from advocacy organization Interfaith Philadelphia Board Chair Imam Quaiser Abdullah and Director of Religious Community Initiatives Rev. Edward Livingston.
However, according to Interfaith Philadelphia Executive Director Abby Stamelman Hocky, the most potent way to build solidarity is not retroactively, but proactively.
“It takes the day-in and day-out work at every level of building relationships at the academic level, at the community leadership level, at the religious leadership level, at the grassroots level,” Stamelman Hocky said.
Community events around security are not in and of themselves a means of community building, Stamelman Hocky said, but they are a reminder of opportunities to be “good neighbors” and share resources that help build solidarity in the long term.
Community building is aspirational, Stamelman Hocky said, something that is ongoing. One goal of community building, according to Stamelman Hocky, is for Jewish community members to become “trusted messengers,” a term coined by Surgeon General Vivek Murphy about those providing COVID vaccine information to vaccine skeptics.
“Our goal is not to make people feel judged or to look down upon them in any way, but everyone should make sure they get their questions answered,” Murphy said in a May 2021 NPR interview.
A trusted messenger is someone who “builds bridges” over time, Stamelman Hocky said.
“Trusted messengers don’t come overnight,” she said.
The aspiration of becoming a trusted messenger has been reflected in security trainings following the Colleyville hostage crisis.
“It’s really uncommon to confront somebody at the door who is an actual threat,” Congregation Rodeph Shalom Rabbi Jill Maderer said. “It’s really common that we are, in that moment, at risk of making someone feel unwelcome.”
Rodeph Shalom, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Interfaith Philadelphia, hosted a training on Feb. 8 that not only involved situational awareness tips and run, hide, fight strategies standard in security trainings but also ways to create “signs of welcome” and instill feelings of safety to those who may feel distrust in security systems that involve law enforcement.
The training was open to all faith groups, and faith leaders in attendance brainstormed ways to create feelings of security beyond the presence of police.
“There are signs of security that for some people, make them feel safer, and for other people, those very same signs of security make them feel less safe, especially people who are brown or Black or trans,” Maderer said. “So when we have that law enforcement or that security present, we’re all the more responsible to make sure there are also signs of welcome.”
Maderer told attendees that while trusting one’s gut is important, gut feelings of fear could also reflect ingrained prejudice and should be questioned at times.
“What’s important to remember is that we’re actually learning that fear could just as well be a sign of racial bias,” Maderer said. “The very same fear could actually lead us to act in an unwelcoming way.”
The 2020 killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and Breonna Taylor, who was shot by Louisville police, underlie the urgency of creating welcoming spaces and building trust among faith communities and racial and ethnic groups, Holtzman said.
“The work definitely kicked into a higher gear after the murder of George Floyd and the murder of Breonna Taylor, some of the other horrible things we saw during 2020,” Holtzman said. “But it wasn’t new for us.”
Before the summer of 2020, JCRC was engaged in a series called “Confronting Racism as Jews” to gain tools on how to address racism.
And just as JCRC and other advocacy organizations have initiated community-building efforts in the past, JCRC is looking toward the future for opportunities to lead in community building.
On Feb. 22 from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, in partnership with the Jewish Federations of Greater Pittsburgh, Greater Harrisburg and Lehigh Valley; Anti-Defamation League; Secure Community Network; and Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, will host the Pennsylvania Statewide Forum on Hate and Extremism over Zoom.
The event is open to the public.
[email protected]; 215-832-0741