At a summit on security set up specifically for Jews, the words came up like shorthand warning flares: Monsey, for the Hanukkah machete attack at a rabbi’s home in Rockland County, which injured five. Jersey City, for the fatal shootings of four people that ended at a kosher grocery store. And Facebook, for a popular page, recently taken down, that opposed Jewish residential development around Lakewood, N.J., home to about 70,000 Orthodox Jews.
The summit, sponsored by the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness, featured security firms hawking services and government officials offering grants. Held last month in the glass-ceiling ballroom of a synagogue in Lakewood, near the Jersey Shore, the gathering reflected both broad Jewish concern for the unprecedented spike in anti-Semitic violence around the country—and varying views on how to handle it.
“The hate is spreading—people are getting inspired to just push hate and inflame others with wrong messages that they hear in social media or other places,” said Duvi Honig, founder and CEO of the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce. “And that’s why it’s so important to extinguish those fires.”
But how to extinguish the fires? At tables set up around the perimeter of the ballroom, there were glossy fliers on active shooter defense systems from a company called Defendry, and representatives from Percentage International, whose security consultants evaluate vulnerable points of entry at synagogues and recommend means of protection.
At the table for IronRock Security, director of operations Moshe Fromowitz said his company supplies armed guards to more and more Jewish schools. Until two and a half years ago, he said none of the Jewish schools in Lakewood had guards—now, about 35 do. “With all of the stuff going on in the world with the rise of anti-Semitism—we saw stories in Jersey City, Monsey—it’s just people are getting more nervous,” he said.
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The several dozen Orthodox Jews in attendance, mostly men wearing black yarmulkes, mingled with state government officials. The community here may live apart from their non-Jewish neighbors—with separate schools, markets and neighborhoods— but they’re active in politics, and have cultivated ties to state and federal government.
After an Orthodox Jew delivered a rousing rendition of the national anthem, officials from the governor’s office and state Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness stressed the importance of communicating with officials—applying for state and federal security grants for nonprofits like synagogues, asking for advice on securing Jewish institutions, getting to know local police officers, and employing the adage “see something, say something.”
Lakewood, home to the largest Yeshiva in the country, has a majority Jewish population and is the center of the Orthodox Jewish community in New Jersey. As its Jewish population has ballooned in recent decades and spread to neighboring towns, tension over development and schooling has often turned anti-Semitic. Residents at the summit recalled hearing yells of “dirty Jew” from passing cars. Swastikas on businesses are so common that one was found at a Jewish-owned business in an adjacent town, Jackson, the day before the summit. Last summer, 150 tires were slashed on Jewish-owned vehicles. Meanwhile, residents have watched as other Orthodox communities in Brooklyn have become targets of street violence.
The latest threat assessment from the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness, released days after the summit, elevated the threat of white supremacist extremist groups—which are are behind much, but not all, of the recent anti-Semitism—to “high.” The agency specifically cited a new group called the New Jersey European Heritage Association, which stickers light posts and fliers college campuses in what is seen as a way of recruiting white supremacists. Separately, an 18-year-old man in South Jersey was recently charged by the FBI with ordering the vandalism of synagogues in the Midwest.
“We’ve seen a rise in anti-Semitism in New Jersey across all 21 counties,” said Jared Maples, state Homeland Security director. He called Lakewood a “hotbed” of anti-Semitic activity, and cited both social media and national political rhetoric that drives anti-Semitic incidents. “It ends up becoming about what they’re doing—the behavior, the acts—that’s what we’re trying to counter here.”
Some attendees at the summit, though, weren’t buying services. They said they were better off taking matters into their own hands. Chaim Endzweig said he recently organized a group of 135 Jews to learn martial arts and do firearms training. The number of gun permit applications is rising in Jewish communities in New Jersey, according to some local police departments, and Endzweig recently registered his own firearm.
“We’re tough, tough Jews—strong, powerful—and we’re trying to get a message across that we’re not weak,” Endzweig said. He attributed much of the anti-Semitism to bullying, and a perception that it’s easy to pick on Jews. “It’s not going to happen anymore...We’re armed and we’re ready and we’re going to fight back.”
Honig, the summit organizer, said all of his grandparents survived the Holocaust, and his elders have long warned that those atrocities could happen again. “My grandmother used to wake up middle of the night screaming because she was in Auschwitz,” he said. “And I remember her screaming.”
That, he said, is why he wants to make sure Jews don’t let anything like that happen again.