March 8, 2017

Local Religious Leaders Respond To Upswing in Anti-Semitic Activity

An orange swastika is painted on a sculpture on the Princeton University campus. A Jewish cemetery is desecrated in Philadelphia. Bomb threats are called in to Jewish community centers all over the country, including Cherry Hill.

This recent rash of anti-Semitic acts has hit close to home, and local religious leaders are addressing the issue. The Princeton Clergy Association released a letter last week signed by Rabbi Adam Feldman of The Jewish Center of Princeton, the Reverend David A. Davis of Nassau Presbyterian Church, Bob Moore of The Coalition for Peace Action, and Jana Purkis Brash of Princeton University Methodist Church.

“We know of Muslims who feel threatened today by certain policies and statements being made in many public forums and then this week we witnessed acts of hatred directed at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia,” the letter reads. “This is not only disrespectful to the deceased and their families but it also violates so many of our religious traditions of demonstrating honor to people after they pass away and honoring religious institutions. These actions must stop.”

The letter continues, “In Princeton, we are proud of the multi-faith voices that come together to celebrate certain national holidays and to unite in support of certain values that are key to our religious traditions and to our country. When the times call for us to speak out against religious discrimination and anti-Semitic acts like we have witnessed this week — we do so as well.”

The toppling over of headstones at the Mount Carmel cemetery in Philadelphia was particularly troubling to Rabbi Feldman. In his sermon last Saturday, he told congregants at The Jewish Center of Princeton, “I was struck by these atrocious acts not only because they were disrespectful for the deceased and their families, not only because they were performed by cowards who acted in the dark, but also for more personal reasons. My grandparents and great grandparents are buried in a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, so for me, this hits very close to home.”

The Jewish Center has been working in conjunction with the Princeton Police Department to ensure that congregants attending services and students at religious school are safe. “Procedures have been put in place,” said Debbie Orel, director of administration. “The police have been extremely helpful. They have been on site. We’ve told parents we are taking actions, some of which they will see and some of which they will not.”

At Har Sinai Temple in Pennington, a similar scenario is in place. “The police have contacted us twice to be sure everything is okay here,” said Rabbi Stuart Pollack. “They seemed to be concerned in the township about the religious institutions. We’re the only synagogue in Hopewell. We have had no threats, but the police want to make sure there’s a presence here, and they asked for details about times, how many students we have, and that kind of thing so we can feel an increased police presence.”

Mr. Pollack has been a rabbi for 40 years. “I have never witnessed this kind of anxiety before,” he said. “I believe that the anti-Semitism is a component of many other different kinds and sources of anxiety as far as our current government is concerned.”

Rabbi Feldman last week accompanied students from Princeton High School to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. His role, he said, was to share some personal accounts he knew from Holocaust survivors and to help the students process their feelings about the experience. “At the end of the day, I shared with them one of my favorite words I learned from my teacher, Paul Winkler, who was a man who dedicated so much of his life to Holocaust education in the state of New Jersey,” he wrote in a letter to the congregation. “The word is ‘upstanders.’ There were not enough upstanders in Europe to do the right thing and today in American we need more upstanders to stand up and speak for what is right.”

Rabbi Pollack of Har Sinai said the upswing in anti-Semitic acts is particularly relevant because the holiday of Purim, which commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination, is March 12 and 13. “The story of Esther is one of the first documents of anti-Semitism,” he said. “We’re reading a document that is 2,500 years old.”

The Jewish community centers across the country that have been threatened are patronized by people of different faiths. “The kind of disruption these threats cause is vast, and a goodly portion of their populations are not Jewish,” Rabbi Pollack said. “My belief is that it’s not just an anti-Semitic problem, it’s a communal problem.”

The Jewish Community Center of Mercer Bucks did not respond to a request for comment.