Opinion: Growing Up Jewish Means Growing Up in Fear

On Oct. 27, 2018, while Shabbat morning services were being held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a man named Robert Bowers opened fire on the congregation. In the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history, 11 Jews lost their lives to senseless hate and violence.

According to multiple sources, Bowers repeatedly shouted,“All Jews must die,” as he entered the temple with an AR-15 rifle and multiple handguns. An investigation into Bowers' social media accounts revealed anti-Semitic posts. In one posting from the site Gab, he stated, “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

After the shooting, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued the following statement via Twitter:

These senseless acts of violence are not who we are as Americans. My thoughts right now are focused on the victims, their families and making sure law enforcement has every resource they need. We must all pray and hope for no more loss of life. But we have been saying ‘this one is too many’ for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way. And in the aftermath of this tragedy, we must come together and take action to prevent these tragedies in the future. We cannot accept this violence as normal.”

I want to believe Governor Wolf. I want to believe that definitive action will be taken to ensure that Jews like me can attend Shabbat services without fearing for their safety.  And before I say anything about the massacre, I want to extend my deepest condolences to the victims and their families. As a member of the Jewish community, I have not been able to shake the sadness and fear that this tragedy has instilled in me.

Unfortunately, the governor's words do not comfort me. This act of violence occurred in Pennsylvania, just a few hours away from where I grew up in northern New Jersey. These areas are not known for hate crimes. In fact, most perceive the Northeast to be well-educated and tolerant of all races and religions.

In my personal experience, this is sadly untrue. Growing up in one of the only Jewish families in my hometown, anti-Semitism was an expected part of life. While I was never physically attacked, I was subjected to having spare change thrown at me, having swastikas drawn on my notebooks and personal belongings, and receiving an onslaught of verbal abuse.

These attacks were not coming from bullies. These hateful words and actions came from people whom I considered my friends and peers. While you are reading this, you might be wondering, “Well, why did you not speak up?”

I was a child. At the time, I did not understand why my religion made me a target. All I knew was that if I reported any of this to my teachers, I would lose my friends and become more isolated than I already was. I knew I was “different,” and I knew I was alone. It is not the responsibility of the Jewish community to teach others tolerance. It is not the responsibility of children to bring attention to the rampant anti-Semitism that occurs in communities all over the country.

While planning this article, I asked my younger sister about her experience, hoping that our town had grown more tolerant since I left.

“Oh…do you mean when people throw change at me?” she responded, “Or do you mean the swastikas that keep getting drawn on the lockers, even after the school paints over them?”   

It’s 2018, and this is still happening. If we cannot stop anti-Semitism in a small, suburban town in northern New Jersey, how are we going to address this issue as a nation? I am not saying I have the answers. Honestly, I am writing this in the hopes that people will understand that Oct. 27 was not an isolated incident. There is a reason that my temple (and many others) have armed security guards. Growing up Jewish meant being raised with an understanding that people might to try to hurt you. Growing up Jewish meant knowing when and where it was safe to wear my Star of David necklace. In a lot of ways, growing up Jewish meant growing up scared.

Today, I refuse to hide my Jewish identity. I will no longer tolerate or normalize anti-Semitism at any level. To those reading this, I encourage you to do the same. Politics aside, I am asking that we treat one another with dignity and respect. I pray that one day, Jewish children won’t have to grow up scared. I pray that one day, sanctuaries will be places where Jews feel protected, rather than vulnerable. I pray that one day, being “different” will be tolerated, accepted, and celebrated.

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