Local religious leader hosts community discussion on the causes, effects and solutions to anti-Semitism

CHAMBERSBURG – “You don’t look Jewish – you look normal.” “People called me Jewman.” “You’re so nice. It’s a shame you’re Jewish and you’re going to hell.” “Try to Jew me down.” “I have a soccer player that’s a Jew, but he’s a nice kid.” “Dirty Jew.”

These are a few of the quotes overheard at a community discussion on anti-Semitism held at Congregation Sons of Israel (209 E. King St.) on January 10.

The event was an opportunity for Chambersburgers to examine the causes, effects and solutions to anti-Semitism in Chambersburg and beyond.

The introductory quotes above are actual encounters that attendees have experienced in their own lives. Those quotes – and others from participants – are presented here anonymously in order to preserve the candid and personal nature of the discussion.

Additionally, there were more stories of casual and not-so casual anti-Semitism including:

  • Repeated conversion attempts by well-intentioned Christian friends
  • Encounters with Holocaust deniers and minimizers
  • Visiting Girl Scouts who wondered where the animals were sacrificed
  • Instances in which grocery store employees needed to be reminded that Hanukah and Passover were also being celebrated
  • Jew and Aryan Halloween costume ideas

There was a brief moment of levity when the audience became sidetracked by trying to recall the tongue-in-cheek lyrics to “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.”   

The discussion, which was held on a Friday evening, was preceded by a Sabbath service that included readings and commentary that were specifically selected to introduce first-time attendees to the synagogue and, perhaps, to Judaism as a whole in the interest of strengthening community bonds and reducing misunderstandings through openness.

Both the service, which was held upstairs in the sanctuary, and the community discussion, which was held downstairs in the community room, were led by Lynne Newman, the congregation’s religious director.

“I’m trying to give people a sense of what we do and why we do it,” said Newman in an interview conducted after the event.

“I wanted, with all of this that I was doing, to inform people,” she said. “That’s why I had the service upstairs. I wanted people to see that it’s not some strange ritual…We’re not that different. Different enough to make it interesting, but not so different as to be scary.”

“I learned over my life that you can’t hate what you understand, which is why I always explain Judaism and talk about it so that it’s not strange, exotic. We always welcome people. There are people who study comparative religion, a lot of them will come here for services, and I am more than willing to talk about anything.”

For the service, Newman picked what she considers to be the most typical texts, which included: “Shalom Aleyem” (to usher in the Sabbath), “Hatzi Kaddish” (said between different portions of the service and, with two additional lines, it is said when someone dies and on the anniversary of their death), “Barehu” (a call to worship), the “Shema” (considered to be the foundational tenet of Judaism) and more.

Downstairs in the community room, Newman began the discussion portion of the evening with background information about the state of anti-Semitism in the world at present as she handed out a staple-bound packet that listed major anti-Semitic events and attacks in recent years.

She attributed the recent rise in anti-Semitic activity to tribalism, which in turn has its roots in fear and uncertainty in the face of significant social change. Newman then described the parallels between modern day and the turn of the twentieth century when societal norms were also being upended by new technology that transitioned society from agrarian to industrial.

“Now, it’s the same thing again,” she said about the enormous societal changes that have occurred over the past decade.

“In order to be able to deal with change, you have to be able to accept yourself as you are, and like yourself as you are, so you can then reach outside,” she said. “If you’re uncomfortable in a world that is strange, in a world that isn’t like the one you grew up in, then you have nothing to hold on to. And you start holding on to hate because it’s an emotion that you can deal with. And hate becomes your friend, your comforter.”

She added: “I don’t believe that a God who has created so much also created hate. I think humanity created it because they couldn’t always deal with anything that might threaten them. And change is threatening.”

One of the characteristics of tribalism, according to Newman, is blaming other groups for problems affecting the tribe. The more a group gets blamed for something, the more people believe it.

For centuries, she said, Jewish people have been an easy target because of perceived differences – “we don’t worship the same, we don’t go the same church” – and when the anti-Semitism of one generation gets passed down to the next, and it becomes “inculcated into the psyche,” which affects how Jewish people are regarded and becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It’s our job to open that up,” she said.

For the most part, Newman gave the participants a wide latitude to steer the discussion as they saw fit, but she also included her own stories and sprinkled in her own life lessons when appropriate:

“Respect everybody.” “Learn from them.” “I believe that the more you know, the less you hate.” “We’re all the same underneath.” “The whole point of it is you’ve got to accept everybody.”

The attendees formed a general consensus over the course of the evening that the primary vehicles of spreading anti-Semitism were familial upbringing and the Internet.

“It’s taught,” said one participant. “It’s around the kitchen table.”

“It happens young, and then it’s hard to get over,” said Newman. “Our experiences as we grow up form who we are.”

There were numerous calls for parents to be vigilant and know what their children were doing online and talk to them about it.

Keeping in line with the event’s structure and goal, many of the proposed solutions focused on education and increased interaction between groups.

One audience member suggested that increased emphasis on cultural studies classes in school might help. The participant said that that was where they learned about the five major religions, and they weren’t sure if they teach that anymore.

Another participant suggested that the basic of Juadaism could be taught by Christian leaders to their congregations. The person proposed something as simple as stating when the Jewish holidays were occurring.

To which another participant added that studying Judaism had significantly advanced their experience and understanding of their Christian faith saying, “If you want to learn about Jesus, learn about Passover.”

Participants also discussed how events such as the one they were attending – as well as other ones hosted by Congregation Sons of Israel such as the Food and Heritage Festival – were beneficial towards promoting awareness and openness.

For Newman, who oversees the Salvation Army’s Christmas dinner, the solution has a more personal, direct and active component.

“One stands up for people,” she said. “I will get involved and say, ‘No, you are wrong.” It is “our job, always, to say ‘that’s not true.’”

Adding in a later interview: “Activism is necessary. If you don’t like what somebody said, don’t go complain to somebody else. Tell them…I have trouble with people who complain and don’t do anything.”

While her own experiences with anti-Semitism have been relatively minor, her grandmother had fled Russia where Jewish boys were being removed from their homes at the age of 12 (significantly, before they were bar mitzvahed) and conscripted into the army for 30 years, effectively eradicating those family lines in an attempt to eradicate Judaism itself.

“I’ve never really had any major anti-Semitic events happen to me,” she said in an interview, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to worry about my children and grandchildren.”

While there are no definite plans yet, Newman would like to hold more events like this community discussion.

“I’d like to invite the district attorney, the police chief, and I’d like to talk about how the law views anti-Semitism or anti-any kind of religion,” she said.

“I think that you cannot really just say anti-Semitism without saying that there are people who hate for no reason,” she added. “Those who hate Jews also hate Islam, and they might hate Catholics. Hatred is such a soul-destroying emotion.”

And for what it’s worth, the story surrounding the “Dirty Jew” quote from the introduction of this article ends on a positive note:

A classmate had used the phrase casually, and the listener stood up to him and made it clear that that language was unacceptable.

To this day when they meet, he remembers it, and, in the words of the audience member, “He is somebody who will say something now.”

[Main image caption: Lynne Newman, religious director of Congregation Sons of Israel poses in the synagogue’s sanctuary on February 21 following an interview about the community discussion on anti-Semitism, which was held on January 10.]

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