Farmington Hills forum looks at 'new wave of hate' in anti-Semitic attacks

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Farmington Hills — Rabbi Jen Lader remembers when she started teaching confirmation classes for teens about eight years ago and asked students if they had ever experienced anti-Semitism, only a handful raised their hands.

David Kurzmann, left, leads a panel including Rabbi Azaryah Cohen of Frankel Jewish Academy, Rabbi Jen Lader of Temple Israel and Rabbi Israel Pinson of Chabad in the D during a forum on anti-Semitism on Thursday.

This month, when the question emerged again during another session with about 60 youths at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield Township, "almost 45 of them raised their hands, which was just an unbelievable experience for me," Lader told an audience Thursday night. "To hear their stories of what people have said to them, not only in school but in the streets ... was really horrifying."

Rising anti-Semitism and the local response to such incidents was the focus of a Jewish community forum Thursday led by Lader and other clergy, leaders and law enforcement.

The event presented by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the JCRC/AJC and the Anti-Defamation League's Michigan chapter follows a string of recent anti-Semitic attacks across the country.

Those incidents included two last month: the deadly targeting of a kosher grocery in Jersey City, New Jersey, and a knife attack that injured five people at a Hanukkah celebration north of New York City.

The crowd listens at a forum on anti-Semitism at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills.

Nearly 1,000 people filled Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills for the forum, which "is a testament to how much our community cares" about addressing the issue, said David Kurzmann, senior director, community and donor relations, at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, who moderated the event.

He and others noted what they called "a new wave of hate" nationally and abroad.

Anti-Semitic attacks rose worldwide by 13% in 2018 compared to the previous year, according to a report by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary Jewry. The report recorded nearly 400 cases worldwide, with more than a quarter of the major violent cases taking place in the U.S.

The crowd was told that anti-Semitic attacks rose worldwide by 13% in 2018 compared to the previous year, according to a report by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary Jewry.

Advocates say Metro Detroit, like other regions with large Jewish populations, has been on alert since what is considered the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the United States: the October 2018 Tree of Life fusillade in Pittsburgh in which a white nationalist stands accused of murdering 11 and wounding six.

FBI hate crime statistics show that incidents in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques increased 34.8% between 2014 and 2018, the last year for which the federal data is available.

According to the bureau figures, among the 1,617 victims of anti-religious hate crimes in 2018, 56.9% were victims of crimes motivated by offenders’ anti-Jewish bias — a higher percentage than any other group listed.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League's online Hate, Extremism, Anti-Semitism, Terrorism, or H.E.A.T,  map listed more than 1,000 anti-Semitic incidents across the United States in 2019.

In Michigan, there were more than 40 in 2018-19, including a neo-Nazi group distributing leaflets in Birmingham, the defacing of a memorial for Tree of Life victims at Eastern Michigan University and swastikas spray-painted in Holly, according to the ADL.

The spike has alarmed Michigan residents such as Sue Ross of Farmington Hills, who remembers facing taunts and threats growing up in the Chicago suburbs.

"I thought we moved beyond that," she said.

The gathering came the same day world leaders denounced rising anti-Semitism and vowed never to forget the lessons of the Holocaust during a solemn ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the infamous Auschwitz death camp.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed on Monday.

That anti-Semitism remains a looming threat for Jews around the world is "heartbreaking," Adat Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bergman told forum participants on Thursday, but "our being here together today means that anti-Semitism is not going to be part of our future."

Wayne State University Professor Howard Lupovitch speaks at the Jewish Community Forum on Anti Semitism at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Thursday, January 23, 2020.

Throughout the nearly two-hour event, panelists addressed everything from origins of anti-Semitism to security.

Describing the latest incidents in the United States, Wayne State University professor Howard Lupovitch, who is with the school's Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies, noted the influence of social media and politicians stoking "fear and outrage."

He compared the current conditions to life during Warren G. Harding's presidency in the 1920s, when white nationalists were emboldened, but cautioned "we are not living in Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy" in that Jews are not facing state-sanctioned restrictions.

However, the latest surge in bias incidents can be linked partly to an "across the board" rise in intolerance, particularly since the start of the Trump administration, Lupovitch said.

Activists believe that has translated to a range of responses in southeast Michigan, from slurs hurled in public to groups facing bomb threats.

The rising attacks nationwide have pushed synagogues and other sites to explore enhancing their security systems.

Kristen Hollenbeck, deputy director for the Jewish federation's community-wide security team, said her colleagues offer training while continually monitoring schools and other buildings across the area.

"We are weekly going out to these agencies and institutions, helping them find better ways to secure their buildings," she said.

The team also is in constant contact with law enforcement, including the FBI Detroit Division, which has a civil rights unit dedicated to addressing potential criminal threats, Special Agent Joseph Lupinacci told the audience.

The FBI takes civil rights violations "extremely seriously," he said. "I think that empowers victims to come forward and report that they were a victim of a civil rights crime."

Carolyn Normandin, the regional director of ADL Michigan, called on residents to remember a mantra when they believe they have witnessed or experienced a hate crime: "Report, report, report," first to police, then to her group. 

"That helps law enforcement get more information," she said.

Normandin and other panelists also stressed the importance of anti-bias education, advocating for stronger legislation addressing discrimination and building better community connections to combat hate.

"We have plenty of neighbors in this community who are also targeted … and it is absolutely essential for us to show up for them," Lader said.

The talk encouraged Sandy Muskovitz Danto of Bloomfield Hills, who is active in the local Jewish community.

"We need to be proactive, not passive. I’ve been advocating that with a lot of people," she said. "We need to make sure we’re on top this as a community and individually. ... I want people to be aware and not feel it’s distant from them, because it’s not."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.