The first time I realized something was up, I was standing in a room charred by a firebomb. I was 9 years old, in the chapel where my school, located in the basement of a synagogue in West Hartford, CT, held special Sabbath prayers on Friday afternoons. The walls were singed with soot. Pages of the prayer books splayed open with burn marks. My young classmates and I were silenced by the peculiar devastation of a place that was once a sanctuary of song and holiness and innocence.
The motives of the perpetrator were confounded by mental illness, but just a few decades removed from the Holocaust, the burning of a synagogue and a school perpetuated the communal trauma. Woven into day to day life: the flash of a number tattooed on an arm, stories of “the last time I saw my mother,” “when I was on the train,” and of survival after having been hunted for the simple crime of being Jewish. I knew, even at 9 years old, that the firebombing of this temple, my school, was part of a painful living history.
Yet, most days felt far removed from antisemitism. Judaism was a vibrant living thing at home, in our extended family, in our small synagogue, and in the small religious day school. Our neighborhood had a handful of Jewish families though the town itself was less than one percent Jewish. Real estate deed restrictions had kept Jews out of most other parts of town.
So when I started at the local public high school, for many of my classmates, it was the first time they had ever met a Jew. I learned that the hard way. A few days into the start of my freshman year, as we were leaving social studies class, a classmate kindly asked if I had been out the day before because I was sick. No, I said, I was out in observance of a Jewish holiday. Within moments, I was surrounded by a curious crowd in the hallway – “Holy ****, you’re Jewish?! Where are your horns?!! She’s a ******* Jew! You don’t look Jewish!” – which was supposed to be a type of consolation.
Kids threw pennies at me in the lunchroom, cracked Jewish jokes, and told me “not to be so Jewish” when they demanded $20 and I refused to hand them money. When I went on a school ski trip my freshman year, a kid got on the bus intercom and kept repeating, “She’s a Jew. She’s a ******* kike!” The bus was packed with 60 students who sat silently, uncomfortably, expectantly waiting for the announcement to end or for me to respond. Then, another boy stood up, pumped his fist, and said “Yeah! Yeah! You tell her!” He was diagonally across from me. I said to him quietly and steadily, “Please don’t help him.” He sat back down. And then I sat listening to “She’s a Jew. She’s a ******* kike!” waiting for the raw threat of mob violence to pass.
The ensuing years of high school brought threats of being stabbed, swastikas on books and lockers and desks and walls, teachers who told jokes about Jews being burned in ovens, concerns that I was heading straight to hell for failure to accept Jesus as my savior, and rescinded invitations to a friend’s house because her uncle in the Ku Klux Klan had come to visit.
But these experiences also sensitized me to racism of all kinds. They gave me a fire for fighting injustice, which I turned into a career dedicated to civil rights, racial justice, and improving educational opportunities for black, brown, and low-income children.
They also contributed to my decision to live in Greater Boston, in a community where I don’t have to explain myself, where people have a general, if imperfect, ethos of welcome, respect, and accommodation for all, where my children should be protected from the antisemitism that I experienced.
But even here, the flames of hatred lick at the doorway. Swastikas are being found in my children’s schools. A rabbi was stabbed not far from home. The doors are locked and security is up at synagogue, after-school programs, and day schools. Though I am not surprised, it breaks my heart that there really is no escape from hate, antisemitic tropes, stereotypes, and ignorance. My children, all of our children, deserve better.
It is frankly very, very difficult to share my story. It is also, unfortunately, necessary. I hope that it can help educate people about the ugly costs of antisemitism and all forms of racism, to push hate back into the margins of society, to un-erase the Jewish experience from conversations about racism and “whiteness,” and to build empathy and understanding between the Jewish and other communities.
*Name has been changed.