The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been holding community meetings at Houston-area synagogues to address emotions and fears prompted by a rise in anti-Semitism over the last few months. Since November of 2016, ADL has logged more than 60 reports of hate incidents, about half of which may have been sparked by anti-Semitism. That’s more than double what ADL would see in the entire region in an average year.
So far, ADL staffers have addressed concerns at Temple Sinai in the Katy/West Houston area, along with board members and Temple Sinai congregants Barbara Shepard and Karen Westall. Staffers and ADL board members Sue Hauenstein and Ian Scharfman, who both live in Fort Bend County, met with members of Congregation Beth El in Missouri City/Sugar Land. Billed as “Community Conversations” about anti-Semitism and hate, the discussions center around recent events and ways to respond to them, because some members of the Jewish community have expressed nervousness, agitation, confusion and anger because of alleged anti-Semitic incidents. ADL’s effort to address such concerns are made possible by the Edith and Sidney Goldensohn Fund of the ADL Fund for the Future of the Southwest Region.
“It’s understandable that people feel off-balance and maybe a bit overwhelmed by what appears to be a rise in anti-Semitism and the number of people who act on that bias,” said ADL Associate Director Dena Marks. “Even though anti-Semitism is called ‘the oldest hatred,’ it still take us by surprise, and sometimes, leaves us at a loss as to what to do. These community conversations seek to recognize these feelings, give people the tools to respond, and above all, to emphasize that as long as ADL and other members of the Jewish community are around, victims of anti-Semitism are not alone.”
One purpose of the community meetings is to give people who have experienced anti-Semitism themselves a chance to voice how they are feeling, how they responded, and learn how they might respond in the future. ADL staffers heard from numerous participants that anti-Semitic incidents have increased in the schools. Students have been subjected to “Heil, Hitler” salutes, and unwelcome Jewish jokes, stereotyping and insults.
ADL carefully assesses each incident on a case-by-case basis, because something that appears to be anti-Semitic may not always be. One recent report involved a student inventing a game “Nazis vs. Jews” on his school’s playground, with the idea that students portraying representatives of both groups would battle. When the student who came up with the game was interviewed about it, he said he did it because he wanted to give the kids playing Jews a chance to get back at the Nazis. While the game’s concept might be troubling, it doesn’t seem to be anti-Semitic.
At the community conversations, ADL makes sure community members understand the resources available to them from ADL, including ways to report hate, educational materials that can be found on ADL’s website, and access to law enforcement. A Missouri City Police Sergeant and Sugar Land Police Captain attended ADL’s community conversation in Fort Bend County, and stressed the importance of reporting to law enforcement suspicious activity, hate crimes and hate incidents, no matter how trivial they might seem. “We are partners, we must work together as a community” in the fight against hate, the Missouri City sergeant told attendees. “We need your help to be able to respond,” he said.
Both Rabbi Annie Belford and Congregation Beth El Rabbi Josh Lobel were pleased with ADL’s efforts to address their congregants’ concerns. Rabbi Belford said: “ADL was immediately and immeasurably responsive to reports from our congregants of anti-Semitic events in our children’s schools. They not only addressed each individual case, but they also came to our community to ensure we felt supported and empowered. “ And Rabbi Lobel added: “The ADL is an invaluable resource to the Houston Jewish community, working both with individuals and synagogues as we combat the scourge of anti-Semitism,” he said. “Their presentation at Beth El was extremely helpful in facilitating a conversation about what we can do when confronted by intolerance and prejudice.”
If you’ve been feeling unsettled by recent events and would like for ADL to hold a similar conversation at your synagogue or organization, call the Southwest Regional Office at 713-627-3490.
As long as there is ADL, you are not alone.