In 2016, hate was a concept. We talked about it a lot, but for me, I had the luxury of talking about hate directed at other people. I didn’t have to deal with the feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and fear myself until my own community was targeted yesterday.
Hebrew Union College has served as the home base for the education of Reform Jewish Rabbis for over a century, and Cincinnati has been the home to the College since 1875. On Tuesday morning, a swastika was discovered, painted on the sign on Clifton Avenue outside of the campus grounds.
The swastika, by all evidence, appears to be the work of a petty vandal, hastily drawn before moving on. No direct threats were made, nobody was harmed, no property was damaged beyond simply wiping away the symbol. Yet, Jews all over the country feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and fearful, that their place as American Jews has somehow been called into question. Facebook, in the last 36 hours, has been filled with unending posts of sadness, support, and determination. We say “Never again,” referencing the Holocaust and origins of the Swastika, and Jews all across the world are programmed to stand up for ourselves to ensure that we will never been attacked like we were back then.
For me, the hardest part was the inability to do much of anything productive. Sure, we can voice our displeasure, we can cry and stamp our feet and call attention to this injustice of it all. But an act committed by a silent criminal with no face is awfully hard to do anything about. We don’t know if this is a doodle by an ignorant punk or if this is a first step for a series of hate crimes. What we do know is that someone found the need to paint a specifically Jewish-motivated symbol of hate on our institution, and we cannot allow our fear to get the best of us.
The Jewish community of Cincinnati and America need to use this as a wake-up call. If we weren’t aware already, there are those who are intimidated by the presence of Jewish people and Jewish values in our country. My hope is that they are scared out of ignorance, not out of hate. Which means our job is to do two things.
First, we need to be educators. We need to be vocal about our Judaism, welcoming questions with sincere and kind answers. We need to tell others what we stand for and show non-Jewish America that our country is stronger with Jews in it than it would be if we weren’t here. We have an obligation to help demystify the “other”, to give an introduction to those who have never seen past their own identities.
Second, we need to be strong in our commitment to stand up for our values and stand up for ourselves. This first act is one of vandalism, but we don’t know what might happen next. This serves as a wake-up call for Jews all across the country to speak up for ourselves, to ensure that we continue to wear our Judaism with pride.
It would be easy to be afraid of going back to school after Winter Break. It would be easy to turn this small act of disgusting defacement as a threat, to scare us, to intimidate us, and to push us away. But what we have the opportunity to do now is to come out stronger, to show our Judaism and who we are as Jewish people.
The most beautiful thing has also come out of this dark moment. The administration of HUC as identified that support and offers of help and commitment have been rolling in, both from the Jewish community of Cincinnati and from the University of Cincinnati which is located just down the street. Members of the College Institute and the Cincinnati community at large have made it abundantly clear: HUC is here, HUC belongs here, and there are many people who will fight to make sure that remains true.
I am proud to be a student at Hebrew Union College. I am proud to be a Jewish member of the Cincinnati community. And I am determined to ensure that this city and this world knows what it means for Jews to be the agents of peace in all corners of the earth.