In shul this Shabbat, our rabbi told us about acts of antisemitism wreaked upon our congregation in the past few days. Lovingly and carefully placed signs supporting Israel, now engaged in a war with Hamas in Gaza, have been removed by vandals (a polite term) who want to show their disdain for us.
Apparently this happened several times, and the rabbi intends to replace the missing placards with more and more signs, should anything happen to the current batch. The signs will grow like weeds, thwarting the efforts of those who would see them eradicated.
Our shul is also now protected by armed guards, a recent phenomenon that we have seen in Europe but now is ubiquitous in America. This is a sad commentary of the times and place where we live.
We are also now protected by a sophisticated alarm system, and we have been taught how to behave to counter attackers should they ever, God forbid, gain access to our building. Just last Shabbat, instead of a d’var Torah, the congregation was addressed by a security expert. This is clearly not why we come to synagogue on Shabbat, but the threat of terrorism just cannot be ignored.
Growing up in Newark’s Weequahic neighborhood, as I did, it was remarkably easy to assume that the whole world was Jewish. There were Jews here, there, and everywhere. And there were hardly any non-Jews. Sure there were a few, even on our own street. That’s where the the Carfagnos and the Lemmerts and the Engels lived — the Engels, it seemed, had brought a little bit of Germany with them when they migrated to Newark. Their property sat on a large plot of land with a manicured garden, all sitting pretty on a city street. But they were all the minority, and we Jews were clearly the majority. Even our teachers at the famous neighborhood high school were mainly Jews, and ours was the only school in Newark that had Mr. Chasen, a full-fledged Hebrew language teacher.
Our high school was never known for its sports teams, which seemed to many of us to be appropriate. It was our brains that we wanted exercised. Most of our teams were pretty much mediocre, and that’s being kind. Yes, yes, we all knew about the Weequahic football team of 1951, which actually beat our annual Thanksgiving competitor, Hillside, for the first time in history. It was also the last time in my personal memory, which extends to the mid-1960s. Then came the riots on our city’s streets, and many of the Jews left for suburbs that didn’t have riots, or Jewish majorities.
Our neighborhood when I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s was flush with shuls and kosher butchers and bakeries and a giant, thriving Y. No boy would ever have even thought of not having a bar mitzvah, and just about no one would have married, or even dated, a non-Jew. It just wasn’t done, and anyway, there were no opportunities. Everyone else was Jewish.
When we got to college, it just seemed that the standards had been set and dating or marrying someone not Jewish was a real anomaly that happened sometimes, but rarely.
But there was something strange about our education. We learned a lot, math, chemistry, literature, writing skills, and typing and gym, of course. We learned history from the amazing Sadie Rous — she’s long gone but always revered. Maybe she was just too good! We never finished the curriculum because we seemed to dwell on so many spokes on the wheels in our history classes, and then abruptly, it seemed, it was June already. Surely the powers that were must have realized that our American and world history classes barely reached the First World War, and never the Second. Thus, graduating from the esteemed Weequahic High, which led to a list of prestigious college acceptances, did not provide us with the most critical information of our young lives. It was as if that war had never happened. Here we were, a gang of smart Jewish kids who never studied the Holocaust or fascism or even heard the names Hitler or Mussolini.
College was not much better. In my U.S. history class at Rutgers, Dr. Shulman got us up to that same First World War — and then the semester ended. When I reflect on it, I see that it’s bizarre. But it wasn’t just me. It was really all of us.
So we grew up and learned not from our teachers but from mentors like Steven Spielberg and television personalities. We also read books about people like Anne Frank and we discovered words like camps, which were not like the camps where many of the kids in school went for fun summers. We learned, but we learned on our own time and without discipline. And we didn’t learn from any teacher who wanted to instill fear into our precious little souls. No teacher, not even Mrs. Rous, who was totally remarkable, scared us or made us afraid of antisemites. We were Jews in America.
Maybe Philip Roth, a graduate of our high school, tried to warn us, but none of us spent our years being too concerned about non-Jews hating us. We were sanguine, safe, and satisfied. We would never even think that America could confront us with hostility.
Thus, spending our lives in the suburban Newark surroundings didn’t truly bring antisemitism to our core. We were not a Jewish majority in places like West Orange or Teaneck or South Orange or Englewood, but we were still very Jewish. We could always find a shul for our personal standards, and if we wanted to eat kosher, there were myriad opportunities. We were living the American dream. We could even talk politics without fear and get elected to office if we were talented enough. Life was never guaranteed to be happy, but our Jewishness was not a negative determinant in our success.
Suddenly, now, in 2023, the pendulum is swinging erratically. It’s impossible to know how far that swing will go. And it seems to be swinging in broad strokes throughout this land, where our ancestors found safety and sustenance. Antisemitism is now freely discussed. It is a phenomenon, like it or not.
This past week our town public high school was the setting for a march from the school, through our neighborhood, home to at least half a dozen shuls, ending in a local park. It was organized by high school students in support of Palestinians and Hamas, and in opposition to Israel. The march was met with a peaceful counter vigil by some of our community Jews.
The high school students cited freedom of speech as their raison d’etre. They were allowed to express their opinions according to the laws of the United States. But, of course, the undercurrent was antisemitism and ignorance. It didn’t take much encouragement to get these kids to oppose their Jewish neighbors. But what was truly remarkable was how little they knew, and know, about the issues.
Like me, when I was learning United States history back in the 1950s, we didn’t cover all the material. Therefore we were ignorant of much of what had happened during the Second World War. Of course, our ignorance corresponded to details, and our allegiance was always to our people in the face of the monumental abuses of the Nazis. Even in the absence of instruction, we were easily able to glean right from wrong and stand among the righteous.
Now, high school students and their demonstrations stand on the wrong side of history and current events. They stood in defense of Hamas, criticizing Israel and its moral certainty, in overtly unwarranted and simplistic terms. It was as if a movement was founded waiting for a cause. And then they thought they had found a cause, so they went for it. Unfortunately, they were wrong. They translated their rejection of Jews and our values into a demonstration that was ignorant and without merit. Their moral certitude was misplaced. They knew nothing of what had promulgated the war, about the heinous unwarranted attacks on innocent civilians, peacefully existing on their kibbutzim. They thought they had a “gotcha” moment. They did not. And had their teachers taught them, given them the understanding they needed to formulate opinions, they would have not engaged in an embarrassing and hateful demonstration.
That’s why, then and now, teachers really need to finish their curricula. Unlearned is uneducated, and that can come back to haunt us all.
But now we know that antisemitism is hiding amongst us. And it’s not hiding very well.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of four. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!