scorecardresearch Skip to main content

In the midst of increasing anti-Semitic violence, a growing unease for Jewish community

Needham police officer Matthew Palmer and Rabbi Mendy Krinsky lit a menorah Sunday night in support of the victims of an attack on a rabbi’s home the day before in Monsey, N.Y.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

There are things Michaela Brown thinks about these days that she never did before.

She has begun to more closely consider what she wears — her Star of David earring, or the college sweat shirt featuring Hebrew print. Sometimes, when an Uber driver asks what she’s studying in grad school, she says “religious studies” rather than offering the more specific answer — which is that she’s in her first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton Centre.

As Brown, 24, puts it, “That just feels safer and less complicated.”

Amid a troubling spate of violence against Jews across the United States — including an attack on Saturday in which a machete-wielding intruder left five people injured during a Hanukkah celebration at a home in suburban New York — members of the Jewish community in Boston and beyond have found themselves faced with a growing unease.


Anti-Semitic incidents have long been a part of the American landscape, Jewish leaders say, but they typically have taken the form of rants or spray-painted swastikas. The recent violence, they say, is new. And in a current cultural and political climate in which many feel that animosity and bigotry have become tolerated by some — if not outright encouraged — it feels especially unnerving. In response, some congregations are now ramping up security.

Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League said violent attacks against members of the Jewish community in the United States doubled from 2017 to 2018 — with 39 cases of physical assault reported last year involving 59 victims.

Grim headlines have seemed to be increasing. Three people were killed during an attack at a kosher market in New Jersey earlier this month. And a shooting at a California synagogue in April killed one and wounded three others.

In 2018, a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh left 11 dead and two injured in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history.


The rise in violent incidents has compelled some local Jews to make uncomfortable calculations about wearing Jewish symbols in public. Others, though, remain determined not to abandon their identity in any way.

“It’s something we’re forced to think about in ways we haven’t in the past,” says Samantha Walsh, who serves as director of the Needham-based B’nai B’rith Youth Organization New England, a group for Jewish teens. “We’re grappling with, how do we stay in the public and be proud of being Jewish, while also making sure that the teens that come to [our] program are out of harm’s way?”

Until recently, such concerns were largely absent in the United States.

In France, members of the Jewish community have been warned about appearing in public while wearing Jewish symbols out of concerns for safety, says Joseph Polak, chief justice of the Rabbinical Court of Massachusetts.

During trips abroad, some members of the local Jewish community say it’s not uncommon to avoid wearing certain Jewish-related clothing or accessories.

But as anti-Semitic incidents have risen to nearly historic levels — in Massachusetts alone, the ADL logged more than 530 anti-Semitic incidents between January 2016 and November 2019 — such concerns have permeated the US, too.

Erin Miller, the chairman of Boston University’s Hillel Alumni Council, says that even in the progressive haven of the Northeast — where the Jewish population is sizable — her family worries about her well-being.


“My own mother was texting me today — she’s very nervous of me living in New York, being in public places,” says Miller, who is currently attending medical school.

In August, pictures of students from the predominantly Jewish Brandeis University appeared on an online forum accompanied by anti-Semitic and racist language. The university asserted in an e-mail to the student body that the forum posed “no direct threat to these individuals or to Brandeis,” but many still felt threatened or violated by its presence, according to Linzi Rosen, a sophomore at Brandeis.

“We grew up believing we’d never face the same threats that our grandparents did,” she says. “But now there is this concern looming that something might happen. The threat feels a bit like wind — like you have no control whether it will strike here or home or somewhere else.”

In response to the increase in anti-Semitic violence, various local synagogues have increased security in recent years.

Brookline’s Temple Beth Zion has opted to hire a security guard for all public events, while Temple Emeth in Brookline, whose 500-pound menorah was stolen last December, now requires visitors to ring a doorbell and requests a police detail for Saturday services.

Charles Homer, the president of the Brookline synagogue Temple Sinai, says it is better “better not to say” what exact steps have been taken by his synagogue.

But such measures, some worry, could alter the relationship younger generations have with “Jewish spaces.”


“My niece is 3, and her first memory of walking into Jewish spaces is going to be walking through metal detectors and having her bags checked,” says Brown. “It’s just a different feeling.”

Even as the recent spike in anti-Semitic violence has left many on edge, however, it has also served as something of a galvanizing force.

Homer, the president of Brookline’s Temple Sinai, says he’s noticed many congregants becoming “more assertive” of their Judaism in the wake of recent tragedies, wearing yarmulkes and the Star of David.

Rosen, who identifies as a lesbian, says the rise in anti-Semitism both locally and nationally has made her feel as if she is now part of two marginalized groups forced to contend with bigotry.

But despite these concerns, she says, she has never felt “more connected with” or “more proud” of her Jewish identity.

“People go in two different directions,” Rosen says. “Some may opt to become less obvious. But more often than not, I’m seeing people who are more assertive. People who are wearing kippahs [yarmulkes] or the Star of David who never have before.

“Just an overall pride in their faith.”

Dugan Arnett can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.