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Long Islanders show Jewish pride in wake of anti-Semitic attacks

Bradley Siegel began wearing his white kippah at

Bradley Siegel began wearing his white kippah at his Garden City law office and elsewhere to show pride in being Jewish.   Credit: Morgan Campbell

For the first time in his life, Bradley Siegel recently wore his kippah in public.

The 57-year-old spent the day in his law office with the white kippah on his head, and even wore it to a Trader Joe’s. He wanted to make a statement: that he is Jewish and proud and won’t hide in the wake of anti-Semitic attacks around the region, the country and the world.

“I felt as if I should make the Jewish people proud,” said Siegel, of Garden City, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household and still attends some services. “We have to do something to stop this hate.”

Across Long Island, Jewish people are taking steps to publicly proclaim their faith. That involves not just joining marches such as the one this month in Mineola where more than 2,000 people took to the streets as police stood vigil, but very personal demonstrations in their everyday lives. 

“There has been a tremendous surge in Jewish pride among many, many people,” said Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, head of the Chabad movement on Long Island. “To the credit of the United States, we live in a country where people from all walks of life are really disgusted by what is going on and are empowered to do something about it.”

The attacks have included a bloody rampage at a rabbi‘s house in Rockland County in which five people were stabbed, and a shooting spree at and in the vicinity of a kosher supermarket in Jersey City that left four victims and the shooters dead. In New York City, anti-Semitic hate crimes were up 26% to 234 in 2019 from 186 in 2018, officials said.

For the first time, Lisa Zimmerman this year put a menorah in the window of her home in Holbrook during Hanukkah. She also bought a light machine that projected an image of a dreidel on the front of her house.

And she is making sure the Jewish Star of David that she normally wears on a necklace is hanging outside her clothing so people can see it.

She is not particularly religious — she does not attend synagogue on a regular basis — but she definitely identifies as Jewish, and the attacks have only reinforced that.

“I refuse to hide who I am,” said Zimmerman, 49, a research assistant at Stony Brook University. “I think it is a very empowering thing to do. Rather than hide and be anxious, I’m just going to be even more of who I am.”

Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Centre said he has seen an upsurge in Jewish people standing tall on Long Island.

“Judaism and the Jewish people have proven through history to be more powerful and more resilient than any of our enemies that have risen up to destroy us,” he said. “The weapon that we fight with most effectively as Jews is to stand for our tradition.”

He said it is the opposite of the experience of Jews in Spain and Portugal who were forced to go underground because of persecution during the Inquisition. They were known as “Marranos.”

“I don’t see it ever reaching the point where Jews are going to become Marranos in America, that Jews are going to retreat underground out of fear because of anti-Semitic violence,” he said.

Still, some rabbis said synagogues are bolstering already stringent security measures, and not every Jewish person is feeling emboldened.

“People are profoundly shocked and saddened. It is a seismic shock to each and every member of the community,” said Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center.

“A number of families throughout Long Island are deeply concerned. They have trepidation. They are worried because this is not supposed to happen in America,” he said. Some “are being much more reticent, much more circumspect and much more careful in manifesting their Jewish identity.”

Dan Venet, who runs a security consultant firm in Happaugue that deals with synagogues on Long Island and around the country, said business is booming, especially since the 2018 mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead.

“The hate that was apparent and grew in the '30s and '40s has reappeared and is being forced on the Jewish communities throughout the United States," he said. "Our phones have literally been ringing off the hook. We’ve been inundated with people who are very afraid.”

He said security companies are providing a growing number of synagogues with armed guards, special "window film" that helps minimize damage from a bomb blast or gun shots and measures such as eliminating hedges where an attacker can easily leave a bomb that later explodes.

It's common now to see police and armed security guards at synagogues, Hebrew schools and Jewish community centers, he said. “That is a wake-up call. That is a grim new reality.”

Yet despite that, both Klein and Buechler said overall more people than normal are coming to their synagogues for religious services and programs.

Most people are not “being paralyzed by fear,” Buechler said. “If anything the fear is becoming a catalyst for us to redouble our pride in our Jewish heritage.”

Some Jewish people don’t want to focus on the anti-Semitic attacks at all, or let them define their Jewish identity.

Beth Finger, former head of Jews Without Walls, a Suffolk-based group that celebrates Jewish culture, said, “I will not allow anti-Semites to dictate how I feel as a Jew, and I choose to focus on the joy, celebration and community of being Jewish.”

She has not discussed the upsurge of attacks with her children “because I don’t want them to associate their Judaism with fear and hatred, but with strength, pride and positivity.”

But others are literally wearing their Jewishness on their sleeves — or their heads.

For the first time in his nearly four decades of working, Mark Kleinman, 59, recently wore his kippah to work at the cookie company he runs in Hauppauge.

For the first several hours, no one asked why. Eventually at a business meeting he explained.

“Jews and all people should have the freedom to live securely within their spiritual beliefs and culture,” he said. “I did it because I stand with those who live in fear of their peaceful existence.”

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