On Nov. 20, a man walking to synagogue in Monsey, New York, was attacked by at least one other man, who jumped out of a car to beat, stab and slash his victim before driving away. The victim survived, but speculation began soon after.
Had it been another anti-Semitic attack on a visibly Jewish person, like the ones that have befallen Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn in the past year?
On Aug. 27, in Crown Heights, 63-year-old Abraham Gopin was attacked with a paving stone, his assailant screaming about Jews and knocking Gopin’s teeth out.
On Nov. 1, a Friday night, no fewer than three attacks were perpetrated against Chasidic men and boys in a five-block radius in the Borough Park community, all involving the same carful of passengers.
On Nov. 8, a man threw a brick through the window of a Chasidic girls’ school in Crown Heights, and on the same night, a man holding a gun smashed the windows of nearby Bais Rivkah, a synagogue.
The list goes on. Online, there’s a bevy of short, horrifying videos of Orthodox people — usually men — walking down the street in Brooklyn, only to be confronted and attacked, without provocation. Anti-Semitic attacks were up 13% worldwide in 2018, according to one study by the Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry. And in 2019, anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City are up 63% compared to 2018, according to the city’s police department.
For Orthodox Jews outside of New York, the obvious violence has occasioned public response — op-eds and think pieces — and been an opportunity to think more deeply about what the attacks may mean for themselves, their families and Jews in America.
In the recent Monsey case, the police ruled out the possibility that the attack was a hate crime as they continue to pursue the assailant. But the fact that so many worried that it was inspired by hate speaks to the fears of Jewish people in 2019.
“Physical safety of visibly Jewish people is a concern of mine,” said former Jewish Exponent Editor Joshua Runyan, now an associate at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP. Though the situation is not such that he feels compelled to change his life — “this certainly isn’t Europe,” he said — he does feel that people need to be cognizant of their surroundings.
“I don’t think that there is great cause for alarm, to the point where we need to start beating our chests and fleeing to Israel and changing how we do things, stay in our homes, not walk to shul — I don’t believe that we’re there,” he said. “I don’t think that we’re anywhere close to there.”
He’s been especially heartened to see security taken more seriously by Jewish organizations over the last year, as has Rabbi Yonah Gross of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, who said Jewish communal security needed to get better and, in many cases, it has. His own synagogue upgraded within the last year.
“There’s certainly a need for vigilance,” he said.
When it comes to the images coming out of Brooklyn, he said, it’s difficult for those who aren’t living there to comment too confidently on the specifics. But Gross has friends and business contacts who live in Brooklyn, and some of them are afraid to leave their homes at night. “We’re scared and sad that we have to deal with that in this country,” he said.
Though Gross does not have a long beard or wear a black hat, he wouldn’t be uncomfortable walking down the street in his Lower Merion neighborhood if he did, he said. In the meantime, he stresses the continued importance of maintaining good relations with neighbors and local law enforcement.
Saundra Epstein, director of BeYachad, thinks about hatred and violence toward Jewish people in the context of what she sees as a general explosion of such feeling in the U.S.
“There’s so much anger in the world,” she said. “I do believe that in this country there has been blatant permission given to people to attack whoever they want to attack.”
Epstein remembers the times when her mother would tell her to tuck her Magen David into her clothing, even for a short walk to school. “I feel like we’ve gone back to that,” she said.
But Epstein also pointed to the brighter side of the situation: how others react when they see such injustice. She pointed to a video that made the rounds on social media recently, which showed a man yelling at two visibly Jewish people on the Tube, in London. The Jewish people were then defended by a visibly Muslim woman, who confronted the man who was harassing them.
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