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September 2, 2021 12:54 pm
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Be Aware, Not Afraid, Jewish Communal Security Expert Advises in Advance of High Holiday Celebrations

avatar by Ben Cohen

Interview

CSS executive director Evan Bernstein speaks to the press following the attack on a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey in December 2019. Photo: Courtesy/JNS

Concerns over rising antisemitism along with the lingering COVID-19 pandemic should not prevent American Jews from embracing the forthcoming High Holidays, the US Jewish community’s leading security executive has told The Algemeiner.

“Despite these two ominous factors, antisemitism and the pandemic, as Jews we can’t allow these to prevent us as a community from celebrating our New Year and connecting with our Judaism,” observed Evan Bernstein, chief executive of the Community Security Service (CSS), a volunteer-based security agency, during an extensive conversation about security planning for the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, which falls on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, and Yom Kippur, which falls on the Thursday of the following week.

Bernstein nonetheless emphasized the importance of individual members of the Jewish community being alert to potential threats. “We are still in a time when antisemitism is very ugly,” he remarked. “Even though we saw a bit of a dip during the pandemic, we also saw over the summer, with the war in Gaza, a significant rise in antisemitism and many documented incidents across the country. We have to be aware of that as we go into the holidays, because this is when the most Jews are going to be congregating.”

FBI hate crime statistics released on Wednesday reinforce Bernstein’s point. Jews are the most vulnerable religious group in the US, experiencing nearly 60 percent of all religiously-motivated hate crimes in 2020. In addition, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in June, in the immediate aftermath of the latest hostilities between Israel and the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza, revealed that three-quarters of American Jews were more concerned about antisemitism in the US and abroad, and that 60 percent had personally witnessed antisemitism because of the May conflict.

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Bernstein commented that many Jews are reluctant to report hate crimes out of fear of further retaliation from the offenders themselves. “I understand where they are coming from,” he said. “I’ve been the target myself of a serious death threat, you want it to go away, you don’t want to think about it.”

In terms of the political source of hostility towards Jews, Bernstein emphasized that while the threat from far-right and white supremacist groups remains significant, it is not the only one.

“There are a lot of people who want antisemitism to be far-right problem only,” he commented. “But if you look at the attacks in Monsey or in Jersey City in 2019, those were not carried out by white supremacists. The attacks in Brooklyn over the last five or six years, those aren’t the work of white supremacists either. That doesn’t take away the fact that we have a major white supremacist problem, but there are two silos of hate — the right and the left. It’s both, it’s not one or the other. Jews in America need to understand and digest that.”

The continuing COVID-19 pandemic is another “wrinkle,” as Bernstein put it, in this year’s security planning agenda. “Last year, services were either held outside or they were canceled,” he recalled. “This year, there are lots of combinations of inside and outside services, and we’re evaluating all these scenarios with our partners in law enforcement and the Secure Community Network (SCN).”

Yet none of these challenges should keep Jews away from synagogues this year, Bernstein reiterated.

“Be aware, but not to the point of fear, where we don’t participate as a community in the rituals of the high holidays,” he advised.

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