As I waited for my flight to Frankfurt, Germany, this past summer, my mom made me promise that I would take off my Star of David necklace and rings with Hebrew writing before I landed. “Surely Germany has changed since 1945,” I told her as I stashed away my Judaica jewelry. “Germans have put in so much effort in educating their younger generation about the Holocaust, there’s no way someone would give me trouble for wearing this.” It’s always bothered me that she was so worried about anti-Semitism. I thought it must be her Soviet upbringing that has instilled such a fear in her. Nevertheless, my mother insisted and I soon realized that her worries were not in vain.
During my first Shabbat in Wiesbaden, a small town outside of Frankfurt where my aunt lives, I went to their local synagogue and was able to have a first-hand look into the difficult reality of contemporary German-Jewish life. From the street, you wouldn’t be able to tell there was a synagogue. To enter, you need to walk through a wide tunnel, the entrance of which is guarded by three armed police officers. Then, there is a big glass wall with another security guard, one who knows most of the congregants. Finally, there is a small courtyard and you can see the actual synagogue, which has yet another security guard standing at the entrance.
The synagogue itself, which was rebuilt after the Second World War, is beautiful, with Hebrew inscriptions written on the walls and a dining hall where all the congregants gather for meals after each service. However, what surprised me most was that the rabbi, an American named Martin, replaced his kippa with a baseball cap and his prayer shawl for a football jersey before leaving the synagogue. Not even the rabbi felt safe walking around looking openly Jewish outside of the synagogue.
Unfortunately, this is the reality for most Jewish institutions in not only Germany, but all across Europe. In 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that every Jewish institution, including synagogues, schools and kindergartens, would be under police protection. And despite the fact that most German cities have some sort of Holocaust memorial, and many houses and buildings have plaques with the names of the Jews that used to live in them before they were forced to live in a ghetto, I still felt slightly uneasy walking on the very streets where, 70 years ago, I probably would have been killed.
Months later, as I lay in my Monday night yoga class at my local Jewish community centre, I felt that same uneasiness. One thought could not escape me – at literally any given moment, an armed anti-Semite can just walk in and shoot me and all of the Thornhill Jewish moms doing the downward dog. Growing up in Richmond Hill, Ont., and attending a very sheltered, private Jewish school, I’ve been lucky enough to have never personally experienced anti-Semitism. Though I would hear about incidents in other places, I somehow felt this could not happen to me. And I’m sure this is how the Jewish community in Pittsburgh felt before the shooting occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, leaving 11 people dead.
Based on this recent massacre, it seems that North American Jewish institutions are headed towards the same level of security European Jewry has become so accustomed to. In fact, an annual audit done by B’nai B’rith, the world’s oldest Jewish service organization, found that 2017 was the second consecutive record-breaking year for anti-Semitism in Canada, with over 1,752 incidents reported. According to a 2016 report on police-reported hate crimes by Statistics Canada, the Jewish population was the most frequent target of hate crimes, despite the fact that Jews make up approximately one per cent of the Canadian population.
The Ryerson campus hasn’t been immune to anti-Semitism either. A recent example of this has been when a teacher’s assistant was fired in 2017 for stating in a video that he wants to “purify Al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews…”
Unfortunately, these numbers are only continuing to rise in North America, Europe and the rest of the world. For example, in the United Kingdom, a 2017 report stated there was a 78 per cent increase in incidents of physical violence against Jews in the U.K. that year. Jewish cemeteries being desecrated and anti-Semitic vandalism are the most common offences throughout the continent, though in many places, visible Jews are often the subjects of verbal or physical assaults.
Nevertheless, like many Jewish institutions in the Greater Toronto Area, my Jewish community centre, which is in Vaughan, Ont., does not have locked doors. Aside from a gym, it has a synagogue, cafeteria, pool and various other facilities that are used by all kinds of people in the community, not just Jews. As a result, the main doors are unlocked and anyone from the street can walk in. And despite the fact that there are many security guards working in the building, I somehow get the feeling that the 19-year-old Russian guard who looks like he just got out of high school simply won’t make the cut when it comes to neutralizing an armed assailant.
The future of North American Jewry seems to be quite uncertain, but all I know is that at least for the time being, I won’t be feeling quite as “zen” in my yoga class as I used to.