On April 27, 2019, a gunman stormed Chabad of Poway in California and began shooting, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounding three others, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.
The word “Poway” has since become synonymous with this anti-Semitic incident. And it’s not alone. Jersey City, Monsey and, of course, Pittsburgh — these cities’ names have come to represent the acts of anti-Semitic violence that occurred there.
Against this backdrop of hate, the Baltimore Jewish Community Task Force on Anti-Semitism last month released a 13-page action plan to combat anti-Semitism. The plan, which took more than a year to create, makes recommendations in a number of areas and calls on the Jewish community at large, and its many allies, to engage in the work ahead.
The Baltimore Jewish Council has also created a position of a director of Holocaust and anti-Semitism programming, who will help coordinate these efforts around the community. Emily Braverman Goodman, who had worked supporting BJC’s Holocaust and the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel, has transitioned to this role upon the retirement of Jeanette Parmigiani, the BJC’s long-time director of Holocaust programming, said BJC Executive Director Howard Libit.
“The task force has done its work,” said Rabbi Andrew Busch, who, along with Debra S. Weinberg, immediate past chair of the board of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, co-chairs the task force. “Our hope is that the range of items will be followed up by The Associated, synagogues, other organizations, allies.”
In addition to creating the action plan, the purpose of the task force was to bring the community together and provide guidance, said Busch, who also serves as BJC’s first vice president and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation rabbi.
The task force was staffed by Libit; Michelle Gordon, chief of staff of The Associated; and Ruth Miller, chief, Community Planning & Allocations for The Associated, as well as lay leaders and a Professional Advisory Group made up of communal professional leaders.
The task force was created as the result of a summit on anti-Semitism held by The Associated and BJC at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in May of 2019. There was also a follow-up summit that took place this fall.
The 2019 summit convened 75 professional and lay leaders. Participants discussed what they thought was and wasn’t working, and identified action steps needed to combat anti-Semitism, Libit recalled. The consensus was that focus was needed on education, partnering with other communities and advocacy.
At the second summit, Libit said, participants prioritized recommendations based on strategies they deemed most urgent and identified local and national organizations that could potentially take on some of the work.
“The Associated has long been working to address antisemitism and to stand up against hate when it rears its ugly head,” Associated President Marc B. Terrill said in a statement. “The framework provided by the Antisemitism Task Force builds on our efforts and ensures its place as a priority for both The Associated and the Baltimore Jewish Council. The rise in antisemitic acts, and all hate crimes, is alarming and unacceptable. We look forward to doing our part to ensure that Baltimore is proactive and prepared on all levels to combat this concerning rise in hate.”
The numbers of hate
Last year, the number of anti-Semitic incidents totaled 2,107 across the nation, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Of these, 234 targeted Jewish synagogues and community centers.
The ADL’s 2019 annual report, published in May 2020, “found the total number of antisemitic incidents in 2019 increased 12 percent over the previous year, with a disturbing 56 percent increase in assaults. The audit found there were, on average, as many as six antisemitic incidents in the U.S. for each day in the calendar year – the highest level of antisemitic activity ever recorded by ADL.”
In fact, the report highlights that violent acts against Jews “were reported in every one of the 48 contiguous United States and Washington, D.C. More than half of the assaults nationwide took place in the five boroughs of New York City, including 25 in Brooklyn alone.”
“Anti-Semitism is not new, but it is out of the shadows and into mainstream speech, media and public discourse and actions,” said Meredith R. Weisel, senior associate regional director of ADL Washington, D.C. region.
What the work will entail
In its action plan, the task force evaluated what initiatives have proven to be effective and identified four key areas of focus: education, advocacy, relationship building, and monitoring and responding.
Key recommendations for education include trainings and briefings for educators, law enforcement professionals, parents and elected officials.
Advocacy will include work on legislation calling for tougher hate crime laws, closing loopholes in laws, ensuring hate crime laws stay current with new forms of harassment and hate, and ensuring that police properly track and respond to incidents. Advocacy also includes a call to support changes to Holocaust education requirements, as the Maryland state superintendent and Maryland State Board of Education are “poised to adopt more rigorous and enhanced Holocaust education reports.”
Relationship building includes “standing up with allies,” “interfaith community activities” and “community leadership” — a call to leaders to confront all kinds of hate.
Finally, monitoring and responding includes reporting and tracking all incidents of anti-Semitism; providing guidance on how best to respond to anti-Semitic incidents; online resources for responses; and security.
Key to the work of tracking anti-Semitism locally is a direct link to the ADL’s tracking site.
“The ADL’s national tracking system for incidents of anti-Semitism is very effective, as well as our efforts to respond to local incidents,” Weinberg said. “This is in part because of our collaborative nature with the ADL and our local government and police. The Baltimore Jewish Council has great partners throughout The Associated system and with local schools to provide Holocaust education and some awareness training before local students head off to college.”
They also identified where more work still needs to be done. For example, Hillels have proven to be effective at combating anti-Semitism on college campuses, but more needs to be done for college campuses that do not have a Hillel, Weinberg said.
“We need to identify what we can do there,” she said. “And clearly, there is a need to educate more about anti-Semitism in K-12 school systems and private schools and government agencies and corporations, how we can fill in that gap.”
BJC anticipates developing a timeline for implementation early next year.
“We are working to identify what can be accomplished first in terms of priorities, resources and the conditions related to the pandemic,” Weinberg said. “For example, we have already created a partnership with ADL in terms of reporting anti-Semitic incidents and have put links to report such incidents on the websites of The Associated and the BJC.”
The pandemic has slowed down the task force’s efforts, but their work has only become more urgent.
“Anti-Semitism preexists the current pandemic,” Busch said. “However, the isolation and stresses on our society of this pandemic accelerate and nurture prejudice in general and anti-Semitism specifically, thus, our increased urgency in confronting anti-Semitism.”
Passing the torch
Whether it’s teachers educating about the Holocaust or first responders identifying a hate crime, whether it’s pushing for tougher hate crime laws or building partnerships with other communities, the work of the task force belongs to the community at large, both the Jewish community and its many allies.
“I know that the recommendations of the task force will take time to implement, but with the help of many local and national partners like the ADL, we will make a difference in the fight against anti-Semitism and hate,” Libit said.
The Associated and BJC will be identifying a new committee of lay leaders to work on next steps, including a timeline and implementation.
Fighting hatred can be daunting, but it can also be rewarding.
“The most rewarding part of leading the task force was the breadth of the Jewish community members who joined us in this endeavor to combat anti-Semitism and who felt compelled to stand up to hate. It is heartwarming to know how many people care about this issue,” Weinberg said.
“It was also clear at our first meeting how important it was to all to be an ally to others in the fight against bigotry and hate,” she said. “It is part of our Jewish values to be an advocate for others. Also, as a group, we have experienced firsthand the consequences of people remaining silent, and that has made us more resolute to speak out against injustice when we see it.”
Haydee M. Rodriguez is a freelance writer.