‘Seeing our common humanity’: New Yorkers march against anti-Semitism

Why We Wrote This

For many of the 25,000 people marching across the Brooklyn Bridge Sunday, words like “pluralism” and “diversity” aren’t out of favor. They are a reminder that, as one marcher puts it, “all human dignity matters.”

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP
People march across the Brooklyn Bridge on Jan. 5, 2020, in solidarity with the Jewish community after a recent string of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area.

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Zalmy Chamowitz, a student in Crown Heights, is encouraging other Jewish men marching across the Brooklyn Bridge Sunday morning to quickly don traditional tefillin, small black boxes containing Scripture, and the words of the Shema, the central statement of Judaism. 

“It’s the text in the Bible, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,’” says Mr. Chamowitz.

In some communities, members have discussed whether the outward signs of their faith should be hidden, or perhaps toned down in public places – discussions that had rarely taken place before the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area.

In many ways, the undercurrent throughout the conversations of those attending Sunday’s march was a perceived erosion of a civic ideal rooted in a belief in universal human dignity.

“What this does, it reminds us that we have to know there’s one God above us,” Mr. Chamowitz says, as he binds the tefillin on another marcher. “We put this on to remind us, there’s something above us, there’s something that’s watching over us, whatever we do, and we have to make sure we keep bringing light to this world.”

Aaron Steinberg is standing in the middle of Manhattan’s Foley Square, holding up a handmade sign that, for him, most clearly states the fundamental reason he and his family have come to stand shoulder to shoulder with around 25,000 others this Sunday morning. 

“All humans were made in the image of God,” his sign’s taped-on words proclaim, a reference to the first chapter of Bereshit, or Genesis, in the first book of the Torah, which expresses both a bedrock theological principle in his faith as well as a basis for his civic ideals. 

“It is reinforcing the idea that all human dignity matters,” says Mr. Steinberg, a deputy director at The Bronfman Fellowship in Manhattan, which organizes leadership programs for Jewish teens that emphasize civic pluralism. “All hate is a problem, and anti-Semitism is just one example of the hate that’s out there in the world,” he says. “But ‘All humans were created in the image of God’ means that we’re all equally valuable, and attacks against anyone should bother all of us.”

Recent attacks against Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in the New York area, however, were the primary reasons behind Sunday’s rally and solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge, organized by a coalition of Jewish organizations. In December, two incidents – the shooting and killing of five at an Orthodox-owned deli in Jersey City, New Jersey, and the break-in and machete attack on a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in nearby Monsey, New York, have rattled most New Yorkers in ways they can’t remember experiencing before.

A significant number, if not a majority, of the throngs of New Yorkers and others who marched on Sunday were part of the five borough’s 1.1 million Jewish residents – the largest community outside Israel. Expressing the city’s kaleidoscope of Jewish traditions, many sang Hebrew songs and said prayers as they marched, mostly in families, from Manhattan to Brooklyn. 

But in many ways, the undercurrent throughout the conversations of those attending Sunday’s march of solidarity was a perceived erosion of a civic ideal rooted in a belief in universal human dignity. 

“It’s almost as if words like ‘pluralism’ or ‘diversity’ have lost their flavor,” says Tim Croak, a managing director at the Manhattan office of UBS, a Swiss investment bank. A devout Catholic, he came alone today, but struck up a conversation with a group of marchers that included Susie Goldberg and her husband, Edward Brubaker.

“People just don’t care or think as seriously as they should be about getting along together in civic spaces,” says Mr. Croak, who felt something change in the country after the melee during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. “It was just a seminal moment – it seemed to unleash something, and the worst of our angels have come out since then.”

“Pluralism is probably the single most important thing at this rally,” responds Ms. Goldberg, who is part of the Reform tradition of Judaism. “I think that’s what’s so incredibly important, because if people don’t have an imagination for other faiths, seeing our common humanity, the same thing will happen now as with the past with the amount of hate that is really going on.” 

“I’m a child of Holocaust survivors,” continues Ms. Goldberg, whose grandparents perished at Auschwitz. “And they had a beautiful life most all of their lives, but, insidiously, incidents like this crept up and crept up and crept up, and then,” she pauses a few seconds. “I just think we’re in a very similar place now.” 

Scholars have pointed out how eruptions of anti-Semitism around the globe have often transcended ideology, and have not been exclusively defined by acts of neo-Nazis or white supremacists, but include segments of the anti-Zionist left as well.

But last month’s deadly attacks against those in the most visible Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities also laid bare some of the simmering tensions in neighborhoods in which black and Jewish residents live together, and where cultural and class differences exacerbate conflict between Orthodox Jewish landlords and their black tenants. 

“We’ve got to start bridging”

Samuel Michael Roberts is sitting on a public bench on the pedestrian walkway over the Brooklyn Bridge, shouting encouragement and fist-bumping marchers as they walk by. A longtime resident of Harlem, he grabbed his cane this morning and set out to attend the rally – but with an injured leg, this is as far as he can go.

He’s a member of the historic “Mother Zion” African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, New York City’s oldest black church, founded in 1796, and a longtime member of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. But when a group of Orthodox marchers walk by singing a song in Hebrew, Mr. Roberts joins them, full-throated, beaming as he sings the Hebrew words.

Some of the marchers are shocked and ask him how he knows not just the tunes, but the words as well. “Oh, come on, I’ve been in Harlem since 1945!” he says, laughing.

But he also acknowledges the ongoing tensions, and the ignorance and prejudice he sometimes sees in his community. By the same token, he says he’s experienced the same kinds of looks of fear and the same physical recoiling from rabbis he’s come across.  

“A lot of these divisions, we’ve just got to start talking to each other, so when something happens, we know each other,” he says. “We’ve got to start bridging, we have to invite each other to more community meetings, we have to invite them to our churches, and have them invite us to their synagogues.”

Many of the recent attacks, too, have targeted the most visible Hasidic communities, a collection of diverse traditions sometimes labeled “ultra-Orthodox,” which prescribe distinct black clothing and, for some sects, black fedoras. Like many devout religious communities, Hasidic sects often maintain their own civic institutions, including schools, hospitals, and businesses.  

Visible signs of faith

Zalmy Chamowitz, a student in Crown Heights and a member of the Chabad Lubavitch community, has joined other young men in his community to encourage other Jewish men marching to don traditional tefillin, small black boxes containing Scripture, and the words of the Shema, the central statement of Judaism. 

“It’s the text in the Bible, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,’” says Mr. Chamowitz, noting that in his tradition, men over 13 put this on every day, except for the Sabbath and holidays, according to a verse in Deuteronomy that says to bind the law of the Lord upon your hands and between your eyes. 

In some communities, members have discussed whether the outward and visible signs of their faith should be hidden, or perhaps toned down in public places – discussions that had rarely taken place before.

But today Mr. Chamowitz is strapping the shel yad, the tefillah for the hands, and the shel rosh, the tefillah placed above the forehead, on Joshua Holshin, who has agreed to join in this ritual act of prayer. 

“What this does, it reminds us that we have to know there’s one God above us, and that our hearts and our minds should both be directed toward God, and that we should do the right thing,” Mr. Chamowitz says. “We put this on to remind us, there’s something above us, there’s something that’s watching over us, whatever we do, and we have to make sure we keep bringing light to this world.”

Afterward, Mr. Holshin, an auctioneer from the Upper West Side, notes the profound changes in his community, where he has recently volunteered to provide security for his Orthodox synagogue. 

“We’ve been beefing up security at all our institutions, our synagogues and schools,” he says. “A lot of our resources now need to go toward basic security, and not toward other social needs.”

“And after all that’s been happening, my kids are nervous, so that’s something to deal with, too,” Mr. Holshin continues. “So people just have to live all the time in a way that’s more alert and more vigilant and more attentive. And that’s unfortunate, especially in New York.”

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