By Michael Feinstein
Some days I wake up and I barely recognize the country that I live in. Following the election, the surge in hate crimes and incidents, both nationally and locally, really shook me. While we seem to be past the spike, every week I read about anti-Semitic and other hate crimes against people and property throughout the country. We can now add bomb threats to JCCs and other Jewish institutions as the latest hate crime. On January 9, our Center was one of 16 JCCs in nine states that received bomb threats. While they all turned out to be hoaxes, they required evacuations and created a high level of anxiety. Ten days later, almost 30 JCCs (not ours this time) from across the country again received bomb threats that were hoaxes but, nonetheless, disrupted operations and created additional concern.
Is this yet another “new normal” in a world filled with terror and hate? I certainly hope not, but I am keenly aware that we need to be prepared. While we strive to maintain a balance between being an open, welcoming center and being secure, the safety of our members, participants and staff is our number one concern. We regularly evaluate our security procedures and are re-assessing what changes we will make to our security and response procedures given this new type of threat.
As part of our security practice, we ask our members, participants and volunteers to partner with our staff in being vigilant. Together we make up a community with a shared responsibility for safety and security using our combined eyes and ears to actively monitor our campus and building.
Now, in addition to vigilance, our JCC community, and Jewish communities around the country, must also be resilient. We cannot allow anti-Semitism and hatred to overshadow and disrupt our lives and our community. When we come together, we overcome adversity. The threatening calls to JCCs may well continue or they may shift to other Jewish institutions. By working together we will take the necessary action, adapt and continue to enjoy the benefits of coming together as a Jewish community.
What has felt like a pretty dark January brightened considerably and unexpectedly. First, I received an email from the Evergreen Islamic Center in San Jose, California, expressing their distress by the bomb threats we recently received. “We are writing to express our solidarity with you and to offer our support. You are in our prayers. Please let us know how best we can help you.” The following day, I received an over-sized envelope from The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Harvey, Rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Maryland. This church was vandalized with hate messages immediately following the election. At that time, the church was overwhelmed with messages of support from neighboring churches, mosques and synagogues throughout the DC area. Rev. Harvey wrote, “Now it is our turn to reach out to you … Standing proudly with you as our neighbors and friends, we hold you in our thoughts and prayers.” The envelope was filled with cards expressing touching messages of hope and love written by children in their Sunday school.
The next day I received two more messages: A card from someone in Columbus, Ohio reads, “We heard about the threat at your JCC, and we wanted you to know that you have allies all across this country. We stand with you, in love.” And, finally, an online donation from someone in Columbia, Maryland came with the message, “I was deeply upset to hear about the bomb threats aimed at Jewish centers across the country. Please continue doing your best to keep your community safe.”
We have been the target of hatred, but this show of support from across the country and across faiths is truly a gift of love that we needed. Rev. Harvey’s letter shared a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” There is a little more light and love in the world directed our way. This is the country I remember.
May we channel this kindness into our own resolve and strength as our community faces future challenges. May we use this opportunity to build new bridges of solidarity and understanding with other faith groups. And, may we take the time to do an act of kindness and reflect that light and love on others in need of our support. Amen.
Michael Feinstein is President and Chief Executive Officer at Bender JCC of Greater Washington.