One chilly January morning this year, a masked man dressed in dark clothing walked up the driveway of the synagogue where I am a rabbi in Bloomfield, N.J., and threw a Molotov cocktail at the building. Luckily, our doors held, the flames went out upon impact and no one was hurt. Still, the incident left our 540-family congregation shaken. We canceled religious school mere minutes before students were set to arrive, inevitably forcing parents to answer questions they were not prepared for.
The incident was the first direct attack in the history of our synagogue. The next day, congregants gathered in our building for a healing service, followed by a forum on the ongoing safety measures we were taking. Numerous people reached out by email and text message looking for comfort. Some parents chose to keep their children at home in the days that followed.
And yet, throughout, I was not afraid. I was angry, hurt, often tired — but not afraid. In fact, for so many of us, the attack was not the most frightening episode of the past six months. Back in November, the F.B.I. reported “credible information” on increased risks for synagogues across New Jersey. Although the suspect behind those threats was quickly located, our otherwise robust preschool remained nearly empty the next day. Some of our usually well-attended meetings and scheduled community events were canceled or moved online.
If you asked me a year ago which episode would have been more frightening — which would have kept people home, which would have haunted us more — I would have guessed a hundred times that it would be an actual attack on our synagogue. But now that I’ve experienced both, I understand that it is the nebulous, unpredictable threats that keep both my congregants and me up at night. This isn’t something limited to our experience, this is something Jews across this country have learned: We cannot rally when nothing happens. We can only worry. That is why they call this terror.
One reason we were so resilient after the Molotov cocktail attack is that we had a plan of action in place. In the four years since the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, American Jewish institutions have developed rapid-response playbooks to address concrete terror threats and best practices have been shared around the country. We have invested in our security infrastructure and communicated those changes to our congregants. Over the past few years we’ve added cameras, panic buttons, shatterproof film to our windows and boulders meant to keep cars from plowing into our building. In the days after the incident in January, we knew to reassure our congregants, gather worshipers back to the synagogue quickly and reach out to local police, elected officials and interfaith partners to firm up their commitment to allyship.
When we put in place the plan we had been preparing for, our congregation and our greater community came out in force. At the end of that week, our sanctuary was filled beyond capacity, with hundreds of families standing outside in the cold in solidarity, at an interfaith rally against hate.
But the action plans Jewish institutions in America are now forced to use work best when faced with direct acts of violence. Our training falls short against nebulous threats, against insidious fear that feels both immense and insurmountable. We are left with nothing but the anxiety the vague possibility of an attack creates.
A generation ago, before I became a rabbi, Jewish communities did not expect or plan for synagogue attacks, assaults against Jews walking down the street, or swastikas painted on local playgrounds. When they happened, the events were outliers, aberrations. My great-grandparents who fled pogroms in Europe may have expected that, but this country felt different.
Now we too have come to anticipate violence and hate. The fear of these potential threats has become a mainstay within the psyche of modern American Jewish life. It is exhausting.
We can’t make these threats more predictable. But that doesn’t mean we have to live in perpetual anxiety. If we are going to do anything about these stochastic threats — in other words, the drumbeat of falsehoods and hate-mongering against Jews that produce both concrete terrible action, and the vague threats that haunt our dreams — we have to find tangible actions that supply agency and purpose amid the tumult.
To address this new kind of anticipatory fear, we need to understand that there is a difference between reacting to a hateful action and fearing a threat. Fear thrives off powerlessness, and when we are afraid, we have to find avenues to get our power back.
When hate feels insurmountable and unpredictable, we have to shrink the problem. Even if we are treading a shaky path, we have to search for tiny patches of firm ground.
Together with neighboring rabbis, we educated our local towns to call us when there is an antisemitic incident first, so we can strategize with them about the right response. Some of our local Christmas tree lightings now include a Jewish presence: This past year, we used the event to talk about our collective fear and the need to bring light. In April, when we realized that Passover ended over Ramadan, we broke bread with a local Turkish community. That night in our sanctuary, a mixed group of Muslims and Jews gathered around one of our Torah scrolls and discussed the many things our faiths shared.
Our wider Jewish community has also reached across religious and racial lines to work toward social justice issues like bringing rent control to neighboring Montclair, to build bonds and trust.
Our local group of rabbis has begun working with schools to evaluate their Holocaust curriculums. We’ve also spent time in some of those schools, putting a face and personal story to that history. Equally important, we have worked to allow students to understand the connection between the hatred of the Nazi era and the hatred today — not just against Jews, but against all those who have experienced bigotry.
Teens from our congregation joined with other teens from around the country and traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn about and lobby for the bipartisan Pray Safe Act, first introduced in 2021 by Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. The hope for the legislation was to create a centralized space for information, federal grants and best practices for houses of worship and faith groups facing fear of attack.
Meanwhile, on the security front, we invited a local SWAT team to use our building for rescue training, since they were looking for an unfamiliar space. If they ever need to enter in the future, they now know our building well.
None of these actions alone, or even in aggregate, will stop antisemitic terror. What our work can do, however, is palliate the fear that hatred seeks to create. There will always be bad actors, hateful people, bad agents. But they need not derail our lives.
Every triumph, no matter how small, takes up the room in our psyche that was once full of our anxieties. We need to ask not what will happen tomorrow but what we can do today. Then, when tomorrow comes, we arrive, realizing we have been so busy fixing our broken world that we had no time to be afraid.
Rabbi Marc Katz leads Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J. He is the author of “The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort.”
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