My Parents Came to America to Flee anti-Semitism. Now What?
My parents survived the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in Poland and came to America seeking freedom, opportunity and safety. They raised three boys, sent them to private colleges and achieved the American Dream. But anti-Semitism was never far away.
My father ran a home remodeling company that mostly did business with Eastern European immigrants adjacent to Cleveland's steelyards. He worked all the time, trying to access the opportunity that our country presented. Weekends afforded me special time with dad as I accompanied him on his sales calls and visits with his customers. There was just one catch: I could never tell any customer that we were Jewish.
Because of my parents’ experience with anti-Semitism, I was raised with the fear of being Jewish. As a child, this fear was real. I had the tangible and very raw example of the Holocaust, which wiped out most of my family. My grandmother, also a Holocaust survivor who lived with us, had weekly nightmares of Nazis chasing her. I was the one who woke her up to the reality that it was just a dream. But, I never forgot those piercing screams.
As an American, I assumed that a Holocaust could never happen here. After all, this is America, which pledges itself to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
But my certainty has been challenged many times. In 1970, when I was a freshman in high school, my parents sought to buy a new house in a particular area of Shaker Heights. They were prepared to pay cash, but they couldn't buy the house because the deed restricted the owner from selling to a black or a Jew.
In 1991, I decided to wear a yarmulke (skull cap) all the time because I felt that I needed to shake my fear of being Jewish. I have. But, in that same year, while on a street in Milwaukee with my seven-year-old daughter, a passerby yelled at us: "Dirty Jew!" I had to explain to my daughter that the person who said that was an ignorant, angry person who was not representative of our country.
In 1995, after my organization Project Love® held its first "Power of Kindness" workshop at a suburban Akron, Ohio high school, I received a page with a return-call number. I returned the call to discover that the number was a white supremacist hotline. The message was jolting: "We are going to take all the Jews and blacks, kill them, put them into a meat grinder and use them for fertilizer."
Since that incident, there have been the occasional jabs and jokes that I ignored or deflected with humor: the offhand comments about "you people," "money-grubbing," "Jews own the media," or "shrewdness." Despite all our positive contributions to society, Jews -- even American Jews -- still have not gotten beyond the stereotypes.
But I have tried. Within the past twenty years, like many American Jews, I have pushed the idea of anti-Semitism out of sight and out of mind. Until recently. Even before the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, anti-Semitism had boldly emerged in our country. Of course, there was the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, where anti-Semitic slogans were chanted. And there are other cases: swastikas on buildings, acts of physical violence and toppling of headstones, to mention a few.
According to the Anti-defamation League, reported anti-Semitic acts have increased 58% since the end of 2016. During that period, there was a 94% increase in K-12 schools. The Washington Post reported that a Republican nominee for a North Carolina state House seat had a personal website "littered with the n-word" and statements "that Jews are 'satanic'". The Post article also referred to "Neo-Nazi Patrick Little, who ran as a Republican in the California Senate, blaming his loss to fraud by 'Jewish supremacists.'" These are a few of the many examples of bigoted and anti-Semitic individuals -- not endorsed by mainstream politics, but nonetheless coming out of the shadows and emboldened by the rampant incivility and toxic discourse in our country.
I am a former synagogue president and regular worshipper on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Over the past year, my synagogue installed panic buttons, security cameras, and, a few days before the Pittsburgh shooting, decided to have an armed police officer outside on every Sabbath. Every week, we welcome the stranger -- as we should -- but we worry, despite every effort, that an active shooter can still break through our meager defenses. We wondered before Pittsburgh, and we wonder even more now.
After Pittsburgh, not only was I heartbroken, but I felt fear once again. Anti-Semites thrive on inducing fear. Just this week, white supremacist posters were placed on a bridge near my brother's synagogue in suburban Rochester, New York. Like synagogues across the country, his synagogue has practiced active shooter drills. Jewish worshippers across America do mental drills about where they would hide.
In a PBS special that aired in 1994, a former Nazi youth said, "The mind is an empty vessel. You can fill it with hate, you can fill it with love, you can fill it with apathy or you can fill it with compassion." The mind is a powerful instrument – it shapes our actions.
The antidote to anti-Semitism, racism and other exploding hate crimes in America is to fill American minds with empathy, compassion and love. The iconic 20th century Jewish leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, told his followers: "Cold-blooded, fanatical, baseless, relentless hatred can be uprooted from its core only by saturating our world with pure, undiscriminating, uninhibited, unyielding love and acts of kindness."
Jewish communities across America saw both after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. At my synagogue, Oheb Zedek-Cedar Sinai, which literally shares common ground with the Church of the Good Shepard, Father Aaron Paul Collins wrote Rabbi Noah Leavitt a message of love and support: "In the wake of this horrible act, when it feels like hope is shattered and faith is challenged, please be assured of our love and neighborliness. In solidarity, we stand with all our Jewish brothers and sisters during this time of immense and senseless tragedy and brokenness. Shalom!"
The love and solidarity demonstrated by so many in the wake of Pittsburgh gives me hope, but the fear of future synagogue shootings remains. That’s the new normal.
Still, I believe America is special in that our true character and aspirations are infused with kindness, respect and love. I believe in the promise of opportunity and hope that America represented to my parents. But our fringe elements continue to challenge that picture by espousing and inciting fear, disregard and hate.
Our challenge today and for our future is to stand up for our shared values, whatever our political or religious affiliation, and to proclaim loud and clear who we truly are. Let’s not take for granted that America cannot have a Holocaust during which group freedom and individual lives are jeopardized. In our country, let’s ensure that is never the case.
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America®, a national initiative of Values-in-Action® Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love® is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.viafdn.org