When Noah Kamens, 17, of West Orange visited the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh over the summer as part of a Conservative Jewish youth group cross-country trip, he said, it changed his worldview. “The more I’ve grown to learn about anti-Semitism, the more I’ve understood that it is a constant threat in the world, and you never know when it might arise,”
On Oct. 27 last year, a gunman entered Tree of Life during Shabbat morning services, and, while shouting anti-Semitic slogans, opened fire. Eleven people were killed and seven (including the attacker) were injured.
As the anniversary of the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in this country approaches, NJJN spoke with 26 teens across the Greater MetroWest area to elicit their thoughts on that shooting and whether it has changed their perspectives on anti-Semitism.
Two general threads emerged. Many described a shift in their awareness of anti-Semitism as a new reality but not a corresponding change in their day-to-day lives. As Noah said, anti-Semitism is not something he worries about on a daily basis. “It’s not a fear that…today, someone might say something to me, someone might say a slur, or might hit me or whatever.”
A smaller group feel no such shift and instead place the synagogue shootings at Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif. — where, last April, also on Shabbat, a gunman killed one woman and injured three others in the city’s Chabad house — in the context of other mass shootings in the world and feel they are not significantly distinguishable. Just two students said rising anti-Semitism was not on their radar at all.
The conversations were held with groups of teens at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown and Temple Shalom in Succasunna, and by phone with individual students from West Orange and Scotch Plains. They ranged in age from 12 to 17. Some said they were the only Jews in their schools, while others attend Jewish day schools. Many of those in public school described experiences of anti-Semitism in their schools, ranging from hearing friends tell Holocaust jokes to having coins rained down on them as a kind of “Jewish initiation.”
For Lauren Broseker, 18, part of the Temple B’nai Or group, the Tree of Life shooting was a wakeup call. “It was kind of like a blow,” she said. “I guess I’m just more aware now that there seems to be this rising anti-Semitism going on.” She acknowledged struggling with it. “You don’t really understand why it’s happening. And you don’t really know what to do about it. But at least there’s more awareness about it,” she said.
Abby Litvak, 12, at Temple Shalom, said that after the shooting she “realized how many people are getting hurt because of anti-Semitism, and how bad it is.”
Jack Blaustein, a 15-year-old at B’nai Or, said before the Tree of Life incident, “I didn’t really think that anti-Semitism still existed. After the shooting, I realized that it still does.” But, he acknowledged that actually, he had already experienced it. In middle school, someone had scrawled swastikas and other anti-Semitic imagery on the walls in his school. But the shooting took it to a different level for him, in a way that Eila Flumen, 15, of West Orange understands.
Eila explained it this way. “If someone said something mean about Jews…obviously, it is not okay — but I can move on with my life,” she said. “But someone that potentially is going to kill someone that’s Jewish…. That’s terrifying.”
Unlike many of his peers, Jonah Leibowitz, 16, of Scotch Plains does not think the shooting changed much, beyond people perhaps noticing more what’s been happening for centuries. “Anti-Semitism is around us all the time, and we don’t give it as much attention,” he said. “But then when something like this happens, that’s when everyone starts thinking about it again.”
Mass shootings, in his opinion, are done by “outliers” who have more in common with each other than anything else and have less to do with targeting specific groups. “Every single one of them is a tragedy,” he said, referring to recent mass shootings. “But when this week, it’s a synagogue, and last week, it was a school, and the week before that it was a mosque … it just gets tied in with everything else that’s going on,” he said, adding, “If you want to cause fear and panic and terror and harm a bunch of people, it seems to just be the way that’s almost what’s ‘in style’ now.”
For that reason, he worries less about shooters than about those spreading hate. “I think the worst anti-Semitism is the not-so-crazy stuff, people just having stereotypes about Jews and discriminating against Jews and hating Jews and spreading those ideas to other people.”
While he doesn’t mind when friends tease him about small things like not eating cheeseburgers because he keeps kosher, he draws the line at offensive jokes and will call anyone out for telling them; he and many of his peers consider these kinds of jibes as emerging more from ignorance than hatred. His solution is to confront and educate those making such comments and move on.
Most important, Jonah said, he offers a defiant attitude. “I think we all need to just continue doing what we’re doing, and show people like that that we won’t be intimidated.” Moreover, he believes that if he’s a role model for others, that will speak volumes to any detractors.
Matt Cohen, 17, with the B’nai Or group, acknowledged becoming more aware of the impact of anti-Semitism following the shooting — while placing it in a category similar to Jonah’s. “I might say that that’s just kind of the way life is,” he said.
Those who did feel a shift described various ways it affects them.
Risa Kampel, 15, of West Orange said she feels “not scared, but a little less safe.”
Ryan Raimondo, 14, at Temple Shalom, said he has become more aware of his surroundings. “I used to feel safe when I went to temple,” he said. “Now, I feel like I have to be a little bit more careful.” He added, “I check my surroundings to make sure nothing is gonna go down.” It’s not something he ever did before.
Everyone seems to have taken note of added measures taken at their synagogues.
Vanessa Baron noticed the increased security at Temple Shalom on Rosh HaShanah. The 14-year-old felt like the police officers were looking and, she said, “That was a little scary for me because I know I wasn’t doing anything wrong. And it’s a little different and unusual.”
Jeremy Lakind, 16, also at Temple Shalom, said that while all the extra security he’s noticed at the synagogue on the one hand makes him feel safer, it also “makes me feel a bit scared, because we have all this because we could be susceptible to it,” referring to a potential attack.
Eila said she notices the heightened security every time she goes to her synagogue, where she has to punch in a code to enter. “There is a possibility that someone wants to kill us because of the religion that we observe,” she said. “And that was never really in my head before the Tree of Life shooting.”
A few said they felt particularly targeted and more vulnerable as Jews, despite the larger number of shootings at schools with diverse populations. Eila called school shootings “random.” By contrast, she said, “the motive for killing Jews is because you don’t like them.”
Many of the students take a kind of defiant approach, holding onto their Jewish identity despite the threat.
For the first couple of weeks following the Tree of Life shooting, Noah Kamens said he stopped going to shul. “I was fearful and kind of timid,” he said. But after a couple of weeks, he had an epiphany. “I realized I was doing the opposite of what I should have been doing … and that I should have been proud to be Jewish and show that no matter what can happen, the Jewish people are still going to band together,” he said. “And I started going to services a little bit more frequently….”
While he was in Pittsburgh over the summer, he learned how that community banded together in the aftermath of the shooting, in a way he found exemplary. “This act of terror made the community show strength instead of fear,” he said. It’s something he and his peers are trying to do