There’s a moment in a Jewish service when the rabbi turns to face the ark, leaving himself and the congregation with their backs to the door, unable to see who might enter after them.
It has been this way for generations, but it wasn’t until recently that that singular sacred moment became the scariest in the Jewish services.
As a frequent speaker at synagogues, Dov Wilker knows what that feels like.
What’s really amazing, Wilker told me recently, is fear has become commonplace in the Jewish community as it tries to come to grips with the recent rash of anti-Semitic incidents occurring here and across the country.
According to a new Anti-Defamation League report, anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. are at “near-historic levels.” Last year alone, 30 out of the 56 extremist incidents recorded in Georgia were explicitly anti-Semitic, meaning the perpetrator felt a deep hostility or hatred toward Jews.
And while the overall number of anti-Semitic incidents (1,879) in the U.S. represents a 5% decline from 1,986 incidents reported in 2017, the ADL audit showed the number of incidents last year remained at near-historic levels — 48% higher than the total for 2016 and 99% higher than in 2015.
When I talked with Wilker, a father of two and regional director of the American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta office, the community was still reeling from two deadly synagogue attacks that occurred within six months of each other. One was in suburban San Diego, where police uncovered a deeply anti-Semitic manifesto in which the 19-year-old accused shooter allegedly describes his motives in planning the attack. And in perhaps the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in the United States to date, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire inside a Pittsburgh synagogue in October. Eleven congregants were killed and six other people, including four police officers, were wounded. This is in addition to the physical and verbal harassment that Jews of all kinds have had to deal with, increasingly, over the past few years.
“The attackers in Pittsburgh and California went to those synagogues to kill because of their hateful views and the white supremacy they espoused,” Wilker said. “It’s disgusting. To me, it’s very simple. They hate us because we are different and (they) believe we will infect society with our beliefs, which are different from theirs.’’
After eight years as the head of Atlanta AJC and 20 years in Jewish and Israel advocacy, Wilker has experienced enough wars, terrorism, and anti-Semitic attacks to last him a lifetime, but until the Pittsburgh massacre, he’d never felt the pain or experienced the unity that came after.
“The attack took place on a Saturday, and three days later, we hosted an interfaith gathering to talk about our collective response to what had happened,” he said.
One of the outcomes was the recognition that the non-Jewish community has a very limited understanding of anti-Semitism.
That’s why the work of the American Jewish Committee — to build bridges and foster understanding between communities — is so important.
Wilker, who grew up in a proudly Jewish and Zionist home, isn’t particularly religious but has long believed his mission in life is to defend Israel and the Jewish community that has given him so much.
He comes from a family of activists.
“One of my earliest memories is my father taking my two oldest brothers to Washington, D.C., for the March for Soviet Jewry in 1987,” he said. “Even at the age of 5, I learned that Jewish people have a responsibility towards Jews, not just in the United States, but around the world.”
He was just 9 when he made his first trip to Israel with his father to show their solidarity with the Israeli people. Two weeks before, during the first Gulf War, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was shooting Scud missiles at the Middle Eastern country.
“My first dinner was in a bomb shelter of the hotel,” Wilker remembered.
Years later in 2000, he returned to study, volunteer and learn the intricacies of the country. At the time, suicide bombers were blowing up buses and cafes on a weekly basis. Wilker was always on notice for the next attack.
“I feel like I’ve returned to that,” he said. “I won’t go to any synagogue that doesn’t have armed security at the entrance because you never know when the next attack will take place. I think most Jews feel that way.”
While European synagogues have long come under attack over something that Israel did, Wilker said, U.S. attacks seem to be strictly about hatred of Jews even though they are simply participating in society like the rest of us.
It has been the American Jewish Committee’s work to counter that.
“We have worked very hard to educate others about who we are and what we believe,” Wilker said. “To think there are people who can’t accept that, I feel bad for them, I feel pity. We don’t evangelize, so we don’t try to convert people, but they still hate us.”
Despite the hatred the community feels, Wilker senses both an increase in pride in being Jewish and knowledge about anti-Semitism in general.
That’s what I call causing all things to work together for good.
I asked him what the rest of us could do to help.
He suggested we educate ourselves, our friends and family about anti-Semitism and the different forms of hatred.
“I think related to that, understand the Holocaust even just a little,” he said. “We need to continue to press elected officials to condemn anti-Semitism when and wherever it happens. I think that we need to encourage more study of white supremacist groups and come together as a community to break down barriers, build bridges and create understanding between the diverse communities that we have.”
Wilker is hopeful because the story of Jewish history is one of survival, and that was never more apparent than in the story of Passover that was celebrated recently.
“All throughout the holiday, we celebrated Jewish survival,” he said. “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
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