Phillipian Commentary: Atonement Turned Bereavement

On Tuesday night, while everyone else on campus was hanging out in Susie’s or relaxing in their common rooms, the two of us walked into the synagogue for Yom Kippur services. Despite the calm atmosphere in the room, we were preparing for the worst. Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish community—a time for reflection and observance. As we entered the synagogue, we saw the rabbi greeting people at the door, moms chatting in the foyer, men donning their kippot, newly bar-mitzvahed teens checking their phones—and a police officer in the corner, stationed by the door. We turned to each other, our bodies tensing as our eyes met. We understood why the officer was there.

Growing up in America as Jewish teens, we are both blessed and cursed with the constant knowledge of the anti-Semitic attacks that threaten our community. As we sat down for services, our minds were focused not on our New Year’s resolutions or thoughts of forgiveness, but rather on how long it would take to slip off our heels to run away, how fast we could get our phones out to call our parents and tell them we love them, and how quickly the rabbi would be able to pounce on the panic button hidden under his podium. Our hearts tighten when we walk into any synagogue—a place where we should feel safe. This year, we were supposed to be reflecting on how to improve our lives in the upcoming months, not preserve them in an emergency. 

During the High Holidays, many Jews hold a shared expectation of another assault on our community, reflecting the normalization and numbness many of us feel toward anti-Semitic violence. When news broke of the attacks at a synagogue in Halle, Germany this Yom Kippur, we were not surprised. The same day, an Ontario synagogue was targeted with anti-Jewish imagery, a New York Holocaust memorial was vandalized with graphic anti-Semitic graffiti, and a swastika was painted on a building in the University of Illinois. On Rosh Hashanah, just nine days before, a Jewish woman was attacked, her headscarf ripped off by neo-Nazis, and windows of a Brooklyn shul were broken by a metal mailbox during prayers. And how can we forget the horrific shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway that deepened serious wounds in our community? According to the Jewish Virtual Library, hate crimes motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs (at least those reported to the authorities) rose by 23 percent from 2016 to 2017. People seem to cast aside anti-Semitism, claiming that it is not as rampant or severe as it used to be, but in the last few years, it has actually worsened. People may say that horrific acts of anti-Semitism are in the past, but it is still painfully relevant, and we feel it deeply. Anti-Semitism lives in the Nazi propaganda painted on the walls of synagogues in our hometowns. It lives in the bomb threats to JCCs (Jewish Community Centers) across the country that cause them to shut down for weeks. It lives in the fact that Jews are being spat on, beaten, and stabbed in the bustling streets of New York City. 

Yet the media coverage of these incidents is minimal, leaving many people unaware of the frequency of anti-Semitic attacks and actions. There is frustration in the Jewish community stemming from the seemingly apathetic responses of society. It is especially frustrating as Jewish teens who live with the more subtle aspects of anti-Semitism in our everyday interactions. An elementary school teacher told one of us that she shouldn’t care about the Holocaust because it was “just a few white people” that died. A fellow classmate told the other that she was “going to hell” for being Jewish. Yes, we are privileged as white, well-off, Ashkenazi Jews, but that does not mean we can escape the ever-present weight of anti-Semitism. As children we felt sick when seeing movies in school about the Third Reich, hearing peers make “Heil Hitler” jokes continuously, listening to stories of murdered Jewish relatives and the physical violence inflicted upon them, and ultimately having to consider whether we are safe to talk about or display our Jewish-ness in certain situations.

For all the desensitization of the recent onslaught of anti-Semitic attacks, each incident still leaves the Jewish community with more indelible trauma. These attacks on Yom Kippur were a reminder that with the coming year, we cannot forget about the anti-Semitism and hate our community faces. We cannot forget about the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway or the recent attacks in Germany. We cannot ignore the continued assaults on noticeably Jewish people in the streets of New York or brush off the anti-Semitism that festers on college campuses. We cannot keep perpetuating anti-Semitic canards of Jewish world domination and Jewish privilege, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust, and of dual loyalties to America and Israel. We cannot keep denying the existence of anti-Semitism when it is so painful, urgent, and real to us. As we gathered to break the fast after Yom Kippur, we were reminded of the importance of understanding the issues our community faces, and of remaining deeply connected to our community—one that, in spite of immense suffering, will always remain strong and hopeful.