July 4, 2020 •
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rabbis jcBy Star-Ledger Guest Columnist Clifford M. Kulwin

After Tuesday’s massacre in Jersey City, New Jersey’s Jews are still in shock, just like the Jews in Pittsburgh last year. When our Shabbat services ended the day of that shooting, I left the sanctuary to be greeted by a fleet of police cars surrounding our synagogue. As I learned what happened 350 miles to the west I thought of Sinclair Lewis’ ironically titled 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here.” What he meant, of course, was it can happen here. And it just did.

I’ve been thinking about the words of leaders from my own community. This morning’s Jewish Insider, a daily email digest of news of interest to the Jewish community, quotes two of them:

“Are Jews safe in New York City? It seems that in the New York metropolitan area, they are not.”

“We have to be clear as a Jewish community that we are not simply offended, but we’re wounded by attacks on any one of us. And if it’s unsafe to walk around Brooklyn or go to the grocery store in Jersey City, that’s a very serious issue for our entire community.”

The first quote is from Rabbi David Niederman, called a leader in the Satmar Hasidic community by the “Jewish Insider.” The second is from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. I suppose we can take comfort that these leaders of the right and left flanks of the Jewish religious community are on the same page.

And having worked closely with local and state police and federal agencies during my 20 years leading a large congregation, I know they are fully committed to our well-being as a Jewish community.

And, perhaps, this latest massacre will increase the momentum for the serious and effective gun policies this country so obviously needs.

All of which is well and good. But, If antisemitic incidents are on the rise, we Jews have to figure out what we do next. Then, I thought, who better to ask than a Muslim? And I knew which Muslim to ask.

My friend Ahmed Shedeed, president of the Islamic Center of Jersey City, was Sen. Cory Booker’s guest to the 2013 State of the Union address. Ahmed founded a program of annual visits to Jersey City by West Point cadets to learn about diversity. He serves on the FBI, NJ Attorney General and Homeland Security community relation committees.

He is a religious Muslim and one of the most civic minded people I have ever met. He’s been friends with every rabbi to serve in Jersey City for the last few decades and was a speaker at last night’s interfaith service at Temple Beth-El.

I asked, Ahmed, what should the Jewish community do?

He did not hesitate. “Do not isolate yourselves. Do not bar the doors. That would be the worst thing of all. In fact, whenever our community has faced a crisis, like when President Trump signed the first Muslim ban in early 2017, nobody stood up for us more than the Jewish community.”

His words were heartening. And instructive. Over the last few days, social media has been ablaze with the need to circle the wagons: “We have to take care of our own.” “It’s us against the world.” “We cannot depend on others.” Jewish gun hawks are emboldened.

But Ahmed advocates a better course: we should reach out for help. Now.

Some Jews view antisemitism as unique; it has nothing to do with other prejudices. But that is wrong. Almost always, the violent antisemite is also anti people of color, anti Muslim, anti immigrants. He or she is often anti anyone who does not look, sound or believe like him or her. And under the leadership of a president who, after Charlottesville, insisted that there are “good people on both sides,” they feel empowered to act.

Many Jews were part of civil rights era coalitions. (My own predecessor, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, spoke just before Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington.) And as Ahmed noted, many Jews protested the Muslim ban and many have traveled to the southern border to protest the treatment of immigrant children. Why? Because it was the right thing to do.

In fact, a hallowed Hebrew phrase from our tradition says exactly that: s’char mitzva mitzva. “The reward of a good deed is the good deed itself.” We are not supposed to act for any particular gain. We are to do what we should do simply because it is right.

Why should we expect less from others?

Today, Ahmed is hosting a meeting of local clergy to discuss what to do in Jersey City. Several rabbis will be present. He stressed that this group was not simply meeting in the wake of the massacre. They’ve been meeting regularly for over 15 years.

If I am in danger, I call out to my neighbors. If the Jewish people are in peril, then that’s what we need to do. We need to say to those in other houses of worship, in our communities, in the places we work and study, “I need you. I am scared.”

It’s not about anyone owing us anything. What we may think we did for someone else in the past is irrelevant. Real help is not conditional. Most people good and kind will respond to a plea for help with, “what can I do?”

And strength indeed comes in numbers. The more we remember that we are part of a community at large, and act accordingly, the stronger that community becomes, and the safer we all become. It’s never just about us; it’s always about all of us.

Danger will always be present in the world. But there are things we can do, as long as we do them together.

Clifford Kulwin is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston.

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