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Jewish community grapples with how to stem growing anti-Semitic violence

"The whole holiday was marked by attacks," a New York Jewish leader said of violence that has frightened many people.

After five people were stabbed at a rabbi's home during a Hanukkah celebration over the weekend, the Jewish community in New York and around the United States is grappling with how to stem growing anti-Semitic violence.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the attack Saturday night on a Hasidic Jewish community in Monsey, New York, "domestic terrorism" and directed state police to increase patrols in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods across the state.

Four Jewish elected officials in New York asked the governor to go a step further Sunday, calling for him to declare a state of emergency and to deploy the National Guard to "visibly patrol and protect" Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York called for a federal investigation of the attack Sunday.

Image: People hold signs of support near the home of a rabbi where five people were stabbed in an attack during a Hannukah party in Monsey, N.Y., on Dec. 29, 2019.
Demonstrators hold signs of support Sunday near the home of a rabbi where five people were stabbed in an attack during a Hannukah party in Monsey, New York. Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

The calls for increased security come after at least eight attacks this month on Jewish people in New York City, as well as a deadly attack at a kosher supermarket in nearby Jersey City, New Jersey. The suspect in the Monsey stabbing, Grafton Thomas, 37, was arrested in Harlem on Saturday night, two hours after the attack.

The stabbing highlights the violence facing many Hasidic Jews, whose Judaism is often made visible by their clothing and hair. Many are terrified, Jewish leaders and other community members said.

But beyond their fear, they are grappling with what to do about the mounting violence and are divided over some of the solutions being discussed.

"We are not quite sure what to do, because we aren't used to this," said Rabbi Jon Kelsen, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a modern Orthodox rabbinical school in the Bronx borough of New York City.

Kelsen has seen increased security over the past few years and said he imagines that the efforts will be doubled after a Hanukkah full of so much violence.

"People are trying to have security without turning synagogues into lockdowns," Kelsen said, adding that it was a challenge to create secure spaces that are also welcoming to outsiders and that he hopes people can find a balance.

The attacks are "symptoms of something deeper," Kelsen said, but it's hard to speculate about their exact cause.

"We have to maintain dialogue across communities as we maintain security," he said.

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But when calls for more security usually mean increased police presence, some fear that more security might hinder the dialogue that Kelsen said is so important.

Audrey Sasson, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, or JFREJ, a left-wing "movement to dismantle racism and economic exploitation" based in New York City, said deployment of more police would be an understandable reaction — and one that would worry her.

"Of course, we all need to feel safe. That's fundamental, and there is no arguing with that," Sasson said. "But how do we get there?"

Sasson said that her group is multiracial, as is the Jewish community at large, and that many Jewish people wouldn't feel safer with a greater police presence.

"Right now, the tools we have for safety [are] more police and more guns," Sasson said, "but the question for me is how can we build other tools?"

Those tools, according to Sasson and JFREJ, include making sure the Jewish community is in a coalition with other targeted communities, having a better system for reporting violence that doesn't rely so heavily on police, creating community-led transformative justice projects and implementing non-punitive and restorative-oriented approaches to violence.

Sasson acknowledged that the vision is a long-term one, and she does not discount the desire for more police from people living in fear after "the whole holiday was marked by attacks."

This point is particularly important, said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, a progressive nonprofit that supports community groups, based in Portland, Oregon.

"You can't tell a community that is being physically assaulted that they can't increase law enforcement response but then offer them nothing in response," Ward said.

Still, Ward, who has studied anti-Semitism extensively, acknowledged that it's not that simple.

"We know increased policing brings increased racial profiling," he said, adding that high police presence to protect Jews "is likely to be seen as feeding into black and Jewish tension."

He said that, now more than ever, civil rights leaders who aren't Jewish, like himself, need to acknowledge that a minority community is "living in substantial fear" and speak out against anti-Semitism.

"We have to come together as communities and continue to set a moral barrier against hate crimes, racial discrimination and racial harassment," Ward said.

Ward said education around anti-Semitism is another crucial part of the solution.

"There needs to be more of a prioritization of education around anti-Semitism," Ward said. "Folks don't know what to say and don't understand how anti-Semitism functions in America."

That often leads to a slow response, he said.

While community leaders and members wrestle with long-term solutions, showing up for grieving community members is crucial in the short term.

On Sunday evening, hundreds of people gathered in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn to express their support for and solidarity with the victims of the Monsey attack and to celebrate the final night of Hanukkah.

"There are radical questions to be asked about the state of Jewish people in America, but we aren't at any point" where there are answers, said Kelsen, of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

In the meantime, he said, Hasidic Jews who have been victims of the violence should know that "the broader Jewish community is firmly thinking of them and that our thoughts and hearts are with them this holiday and we wish them a powerful and resilient eighth night of Hanukkah."