Opinion | Three years ago, Tree of Life was just the beginning

Marc Terrill
Marc B. Terrill (Photo by David Stuck)

By Marc B. Terrill

There are days that are forever etched in your psyche and that affect your sense of well-being. Three years ago — October 27, 2018 — was one of them for me.

I’ll never forget receiving a phone call from my mother-in-law, who lives in Pittsburgh. She was calling to let us know about the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. And to inform us that my wife’s cousins, Cecil and David Rosenthal, were among the dead.

Eleven people were killed that Shabbat morning and eight were wounded in the deadliest antisemitic attack recorded in American history. At the time, it was hard for me to comprehend that something like this could happen in this day and age, let alone in our country. And certainly not to anyone connected to my family. Little did I know that this grisly incident was like the canary in the coal mine, the first in a rising tide of verbal, physical and online attacks against Jews that would permeate this country.

The Poway synagogue shooting in California; Charlottesville, Va.; a gang attack on a Jewish man in Times Square and, most recently, the controversy in Texas about teaching the “other side” of the Holocaust — these are only a few of the growing number of antisemitic incidents we have encountered in the past few years.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 2020 antisemitic acts were at historically high levels in the United States; in Maryland they increased 135% from the previous year.

Even in our hometown of Baltimore, we were stunned to learn this summer that antisemitic graffiti was spray painted on headstones at the German Hill Road Jewish Cemetery in Dundalk. Although the Jewish Cemetery Association immediately removed the paint, we were again reminded that hate could happen in our backyard.

What transpired next, fortunately, brought a collective sense of hope, a realization that there are people who are willing to stand with us. For several days after the incident, elected officials, Christian and Islamic faith leaders, organizations including the NAACP and CASA, came together at the cemetery to denounce hate, speak about the strength of diversity and show solidarity with the Jewish community.

We are proud that through our advocacy arm, the Baltimore Jewish Council, we have built these relationships over the years. Our commitment to ongoing dialogues across religious, ethnic and racial lines have encouraged a broader sense of understanding for one another. And we have stood by our allies too, refusing to stand on the sidelines, whenever others are confronted with hate.

Building relationships is one of the core components that came out of our Baltimore Jewish Community Task Force on Antisemitism. This task force, which we convened with the BJC and that is comprised of Jewish community leaders, mapped out a comprehensive framework, focusing on education, advocacy and relationship building to counter hate and bigotry. In the statement we created, we forcefully acknowledged that we cannot stand idly by or be apathetic but must condemn and confront antisemitism without exception.

We have already begun some of the work outlined in the recommendations. We are collaborating with our national partner, the ADL, to provide a place on both The Associated’s and the BJC’s websites to report hate crimes. Through the BJC, we continue to successfully advocate for the passage of a strong hate crimes bill and a more robust Holocaust education requirement to programming for teachers and students.

Our education work continues with programming for the broader community. Recently, public and private educators statewide attended the BJC and Jewish Museum of Maryland’s Holocaust workshops. The two-day programs allow Maryland teachers to learn best practices for teaching about the Holocaust and genocide.

At the same time, we continue to be committed to the security of our Jewish institutions — our synagogues, day schools, the JCC and more. Through the BJC, we provide security assessments to more than 100 Jewish facilities across the state and help Jewish institutions with their applications for state and federal security grants.

In a society in which diversity is a strength, hate diminishes who we are. We must continue to lead, to speak out and to work closely with our partners across racial, ethnic and religious lines. This is the way to erase hate altogether from our collective consciousness.

Marc B. Terrill is the president of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.

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