Six months after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh where 11 people were killed and six wounded, I sat in a Twin Cities synagogue with my family. We were witnessing a Bat Mitzvah, a beautiful tradition when a young person commits to the religious, moral, and spiritual obligations of Judaism. It’s supposed to be a time for community, connection, and celebration. But I was too distracted to be present in the moment. In a word, I was terrified.
I looked over my right shoulder. What would we do if a shooter entered the sanctuary? I looked over my left shoulder. What was our exit strategy — and would we even need one? In my worst-case scenario, which I was desperately trying to tamp down, we’d be casualties, seated as we were in the back row, right next to the entrance.
There was no visible security or police presence. Yet when the Bat Mitzvah was leading the congregation in prayer, I noticed the rabbi moved to the back of the sanctuary, acting as a spiritual security guard, watching over and protecting us. Knowing that, my escalating worries may sound off base. But later that same day, a gunman entered a California synagogue, killed a 60-year-old woman, and wounded three others.
These days, in light of all that’s happened, discrimination against Jews isn’t my biggest worry and I let Jewish jokes slide when I don’t feel like speaking up. It’s true: Maybe I should be more concerned, as I know microaggressions can lead to larger incidents. But the deeply rooted terror I feel every time I walk into a synagogue or bring my children to religious school is an ever-present, primal fear.
Over the past two years, antisemitism has risen sharply — in part, at least recently, due to the Israel-Hamas conflict. A survey of 600 American Jews conducted this year by the Anti-Defamation League found 60 percent reported witnessing behavior or comments they personally deemed to be anti-Semitic following the violence. And in May 2021, the ADL recorded 305 antisemitic incidents — including 190 cases of harassment, 50 cases of vandalism, and 11 assaults. That’s a 115 percent increase from the same month last year.
Moreover, a 2019 FBI Hate Crime Statistic report found that while Jews comprise just 2.4 percent of the American population, they’re victims of more than 60 percent of anti-religious hate crimes. That said, religious persecution and discrimination are not unique to Judaism. Historically, all religions — including Native American faiths, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and others — have endured the alienation and dehumanization inherent in anti-religious hatred.
Eighty years ago, the global Jewish population had reached around 16 million. What followed was the Holocaust and the systematic murder of six million Jews. Only now is the global Jewish population beginning to reach pre-World War II numbers. It’s this fact and my sense of duty to live a fully Jewish life without apology for those who never got the chance that pushes me and many Jews around the world to keep our religion, culture, and people moving forward.
Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to explaining Judaism, our holidays, foods, and traditions. I welcome questions and embrace the opportunity to educate those whose inquiry comes from a place of curiosity and a desire to expand their knowledge. However, my patience is tested every year when I review the upcoming school calendar and consider the consequences of pulling my children out of school to observe Jewish holidays.
This year is particularly challenging: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, falls on Sept 7, the day after Labor Day and traditionally the first school day for many districts. A grassroots effort by Jewish parents lobbied local school districts to request the start of school be moved, so Jewish children wouldn’t miss their first day. It was heartening to see the community organizing, with most district leaders listening and being open to change. The largely successful endeavor resulted in several Twin Cities school districts moving start dates before or after Sept. 7. This gives me hope.
Last year my company expanded its paid holiday benefits to accommodate personal choice. That means I can swap paid holidays of my choosing with Jewish holidays, providing me with the freedom to take days off without using precious PTO days. That decision by The Lacek Group is part of a larger effort to create a more equitable, inclusive culture. And for that, I’m thankful too.
Is your workplace upholding its employees of all religions? Are they made to feel welcome? In addition, do you personally support friends and colleagues of a religious minority? Do you sincerely ask about their spiritual beliefs, practices, and traditions? Perhaps you’re unsure of what to ask? Start with a simple, “I’m curious about X. Would you consider telling me how your family celebrates?” It’s likely you’ll learn something new and have deepened your relationship with that friend or colleague.
Next week is Rosh Hashanah and services will be held. Ever since COVID, my synagogue has provided options for our congregation to engage spiritually in a virtual capacity. And so while some people will attend services in person, my family will attend over Zoom. Why? Because of COVID concerns, because we like cozying up on our couch together because my husband and boys prefer wearing casual clothes rather than suits — and because of my lingering fears.
Amy Farsht is a member of Temple Israel and the Senior Director, Partnership Marketing at The Lacek Group. She lives in Edina with her husband Dan and two sons – Ari and Jonah. Twenty-five years after moving to the Twin Cities, Amy finally feels comfortable saying she is “from the Twin Cities”.