New Jersey’s Battle with Antisemitism


When hundreds of antisemitic flyers were distributed around Brigantine, New Jersey, this summer, appalled community members rallied to show their solidarity with the Jewish community.  Patrick Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island in the US House for 16 years, joined with locals for a Solidarity Event held on August 26 by the library, which has a monument to the theologian Martin Niemoller.  Niemoller, a German pastor who lived through the Second World War, had originally been sympathetic to the National Socialists until he realized the error of his ways. He is best remembered for his work “First They Came.”  

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. 

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. 

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. 

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. 

Antisemitism has continued to be a threatening element in New Jersey society.  In December of 2019, a kosher grocery store in Jersey City was attacked, leaving six people dead—among them, police officers and the attackers themselves.  This week, the FBI issued a security warning of a “broad” but unspecified threat to New Jersey synagogues.  On Friday, Governor Phil Murphy announced that the threat had been “mitigated.”  

“When the announcement came through yesterday that all New Jersey’s synagogues are on high alert, how frightening is that?”  Temple Beth Shalom President Jan Sarratore said to Insider NJ.  “You can’t go to your congregation and have your right to pray the way you do because somebody hates you. With a threat like that, you don’t know who it is. Is it a group? Is it an individual?”  

She said that she was on a call with the governor Friday morning when he informed them that the threat had been “mitigated” bringing a sense of relief.  “We were very happy to hear that. But you are always cautious about what’s going to happen next time, and who’s going to be targeted. It’s very scary. What we have encouraged our congregation to do is to be present, and to let people know that we are going to be at services. We do have the support of the Brigantine community as all the Jewish communities across the nation right now have the support of their police. Governor Murphy made it very clear that though it is a big relief that this has been mitigated, there’s a wave of antisemitic incidents, and people should have the right to worship. As a community, we’re going to stand vigilant.  He said, ‘I don’t want people to feel afraid of going to services tonight or this weekend, or to be involved with congregational activities.’”  

The call, Sarratore said, included a number of law enforcement agencies, including the New Jersey State Police, Office of Homeland Security, New Jersey Attorney General, and US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.  “What we have asked our congregation to do is to be present, that the best way to stand up against the rising tide of antisemitism is to be present, and to wear your star of David proudly, to show your Mezuzah on your door proudly, and to have community celebrations of Jewish holidays. It would be a powerful presence.”  

Brigantine has been actively engaged with its Jewish community and Sarratore credited the Mayor and Police for their great support, especially since the August incident which rattled the municipality.  “The mayor became very involved with our Rabbi Gerald Fox, and together, with the American Jewish Committee Regional Director Marcia Bronstein who worked with the mayor and the rabbi, they put together a resolution for the city of Brigantine. Many mayors are creating and presenting to their city councils a resolution similar to the one that was just passed on October 19.”  

Dr. Frank Kern of Brigantine wanted to take action and partnered with Mr. Kennedy.  “I was very upset about [the August antisemitic incident], as was Mr. Kennedy, and we decided that doing nothing was not an option,” Dr. Kern said.  “We decided to try to organize a an event at the public library in Brigantine, which has happened to be home of a holocaust memorial sculpture. That was very successful with regard to turnout.”  

Dr. Kern said that the synagogues had been advised not to do anything and simply lay low.  For him, the prospect of not taking action brought to mind the horrors of the past, where the warnings of history stood out in his mind.  “It dawned on me that, just like 1930s Germany, there were three groups of us: those who said ‘nothing can happen here, I’m going to stay put and keep my mouth shut’; those who protested; and those who fled. I had a meeting with the president of the synagogue to express my opinion that doing nothing was not a good idea after the solidarity event. Mr. Kennedy and I felt that educating the population was a good way to fight antisemitism locally as well as regionally. With his help, we decided to have an educational event with a speaker, [former Ambassador] Mark Ginsburg, and show some of the Holocaust footage from the Ken Burns ‘The US and the Holocaust’. That’s what we organized, I then turned it over to Mrs. Sarratore.  She and Patrick decided on the date, place and on bringing in the talent to the city of Brigantine, and the other religious organizations on the island, which I think is just terrific.”  

Sarratore credited the Brigantine community and administration’s adoption of the resolution as a sign that hatred is not welcome in Brigantine. “Patrick Kennedy and Frank felt that we needed a follow up and this presentation evolved from that. Mark Ginsberg will be speaking at this program on December 1, it will be at the Brigantine Community School Auditorium at 6:30. We have our three faith organizations who have all supported it and we’ll be sending a representative to speak.”  Sarratore said that the program will include a number of speakers and is anticipated to be about two hours.  

When asked what she thought has given impetus to the most recent wave of antisemitic incidents and sentiments, she offered her thoughts.  “I think that the white nationalists have been called to action by our previous administration, that it is okay to hate people. There are so many disturbing things happening all around the country, a lot of them are involving the Jewish community. As the pamphlet in August showed, they think that the Jews are responsible for any ill of society and they’re believing a lot of lies—there are a lot of stories that are made up.”  

Former President Donald Trump has Jews in his own immediate family.  “I can’t imagine how his daughter and son in law must feel,” Sarratore said.  “I can’t imagine, and I don’t know why they’re not coming out and saying something about that.”  

For Sarratore, one of the best ways to combat antisemitism is visibility, demonstrating the commonalities shared by Jews and non-Jewish people in the community.  “What is being told is to show your Jewishness, don’t be afraid, however you can make that happen. There was a statement this morning from Representative Josh Gottheimer, who’s a Jewish Democrat from New Jersey, and his statement, which I included in a letter to the temple congregants this morning, said that the key is to stand up, fight it, and not back down—make it very clear that we will not cower. I think it is so frustrating to know that we haven’t learned from history. If you haven’t watched ‘The US and the Holocaust’, which is the Ken Burns documentary that was recently on television, you’ll watch those scenes of the rise of Hitler, and you watch the rally that Trump held where they’re all raising their finger in the QAnon salute, and it gives you chills. When I got the news yesterday about the threat to New Jersey synagogues, my first thought went to Kristallnacht, and what happened to all the synagogues at that time when they were burned to the ground, all the Jewish books, the Torahs, and everything. Are we going to relive this? It’s very frightening.”  

Her synagogue, like many others, was the recipient of a grant to “harden” their security features.  She expressed her immense gratitude for the grant as they go through the process.  “I wish we had applied for this a couple years ago.  It just seems like you have to do this, and, how sad.”  

“Our country is kind of coming apart at the seams and the idea that we’re all in this together is not something we can take for granted anymore,” Congressman Kennedy told Insider NJ.  “As the economy is very daunting and stressful for so many people, we’ve always seen throughout history that marginalized groups and minority groups are often scapegoated.  When times are difficult, the solutions to the economy and so many other things are more complex. But it’s easy for demagogues to just play upon people’s insecurities and fear, and revert to those old tragically tried and true mechanisms of racism and antisemitism.”  

Kennedy said it was “very disconcerting” that, in the year 2022, so many battles which had been fought against antisemitism and racism seemed to have been for naught.  The old battles are once again being fought in the present.  He appreciated Brigantine’s Mayor Vince Sera and local elected officials for adopting the resolution.  “I have praised our Republican mayor and personally thanked the Republican council for the adoption of this resolution.”  The resolution, he said, demonstrated the local leadership’s courage.  

“Antisemitism doesn’t go away, unfortunately. It requires our vigilance, our participation, and trying to step up and push back on it,” Kennedy said.  “We just can’t sit by read the news and not stand up and speak out. Charlottesville was a wakeup call, it was the opening up Pandora’s Box when the president said, ‘there’s good people on both sides.’ It was a dog whistle among many that he’s used over the years.”  

Kennedy emphasized the importance of having a fair and truthful understanding of where the country has been as it charts its way forward.  He criticized the far-right and warned of the dangers of misinformation or skewing history.  “It’s not unpatriotic to be honest about where our country has gotten it wrong. When we talk about ‘make America great again’—for whom? Historically speaking, people of color in this country have really borne the brunt of systemic racism. Now it doesn’t mean everybody has bigoted thoughts and feelings, but if you don’t understand the structure and the construct of how our society is built, and what the history is, then you won’t know how to make it better.”

The congressman warned that an understanding of the past is crucial and that it is up to individuals to do their part to preserve American democracy and build a safer and more tolerant society.  “If we look at history, they say, ‘Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’  There is another saying that ‘evil happens when people of goodwill do nothing.’ The challenge here is we can’t just watch the stuff unfold. Each of us has to do our little part to stand up to this. Over half to two-thirds of the world’s population live under dictatorship. All the people in China, the people in Russia, a lot of people in Africa and Latin America live under a dictatorship. It reminds you that democracy is not the norm. The United States has the longest enduring democracy in human history, and we’re a young country, so let’s not take it for granted. Let’s understand that our strength as a country are our democratic institutions. Do we want to become like strongman countries with Duarte, Putin, China, North Korea, Venezuela, countries in the Middle East where they have to wear burkas and cover up, like in Tehran with religious fascists? Let’s call them all out. Let’s say to people, ‘You don’t think it’s so great what we have in this country? You think Joe Biden is the worst thing in the world? Why don’t you take a look around?’”  

Kennedy said that while Americans may not like politicians and especially those of the other party, the peaceful transition of power and the respect for democratic institutions are the hallmarks of American power and moral authority in the world.  “We’re the best country in the world because we tolerate [each other] without having to resort to guns, which frankly, rule in most other parts of the world. When we sent our brave men and women in uniform overseas to fight in World War Two, when my Uncle Joe was killed fighting fascism against Hitler and my Uncle Jack served in the South Pacific fighting Hirohito and fascism there, I thought our country stood for standing up against that stuff. Now, it’s the ‘enemy within’. That’s the biggest threat to our country. So many of our nation’s soldiers died protecting us from communism and from fascism. It’s an insult to their sacrifice that people wrap themselves in the American flag and yet turn their backs on exactly what this country stands for.”  

When the December solidarity event is held, Kennedy hopes that it will send a resonating message that Brigantine is a community which stands together with their Jewish residents.  “We are not going to allow people to come in and divide us. We’re a small community that loves one another, looks out for one another, and we’ll defend one another. Those are our values.”  

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