Rabbi Barak Bader grew up in Alabama, where there wasn’t a single other Jewish child in his school. But today as an adult living in Montgomery County, Bader said it’s rare he crosses the street without running into another Jew.
“When I came here, I instantly felt the Jewish presence,” said Bader, an associate rabbi at the Jewish Rockville Outreach Center, also known as JewishROC. “Even just on a normal day, so many people greet me with ‘shalom,’ or I may hear someone speaking Yiddish. It’s very empowering because it truly shows you how big our family is.”
An estimated 10% of Montgomery County’s population is Jewish. Comparatively, less than 2.5% of Americans are Jewish, according to Pew Research Data.
Despite the discovery this month of antisemitic vandalism at Walt Whitman High School and other recent antisemitic acts, Bader and other Jewish residents say the county is, in fact, welcoming for Jews. They point to the large population, the number of Jewish institutions, the civic leadership roles Jews are inhabiting and Montgomery County Public Schools’ recognition of Jewish holidays.
Amid a spate of hateful acts locally and a spike across the nation, many local Jews say they respond by finding community with one another, no matter their differences.
“When we let anger and fear subsume everything else, we present a distorted view of Judaism and of Jewish people to the world,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which is based in North Bethesda.
The spray-painted graffiti found Dec. 17 at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda declared “Jews are not welcome here.” The following day, several Whitman staff members discovered an antisemitic message in their email inboxes from an unknown sender.
The Whitman graffiti is at least the fourth time since August that antisemitic vandalism has defaced a site in Montgomery County, according to officials. Antisemitic statements and swastikas have been splashed across public spaces in North Bethesda, Kensington and Silver Spring just in the past few months.
But community members and local civic leaders joined together publicly to stand against antisemitism at a Hanukkah vigil at Whitman. Students walked out of class Thursday, demanding more Holocaust education.
While the incidents have been distressing, Bader and other local Jewish leaders say it’s important to remember antisemitism is nothing new.
At JewishROC, the goal is to inspire Jews from all backgrounds and levels of observance to experience a closer connection to Judaism and a deeper spirituality through Torah, education and engagement in Jewish practice.
In the face of hate, Bader said embracing Jewish community and education is imperative.
“Antisemitism … has been going on literally for as long as there’s been Jews,” he said. “Now, how do we deal with that? By being pro-Jewish.”
Strong Jewish presence in MoCo
Because of barriers such as restrictive land covenants, fewer than 10 Jewish families lived in Montgomery County in 1920, according to one local developer of the era, a Bethesda Magazine story from earlier this year reported. Yet the Jewish population was active, and it grew rapidly with the influx of professionals joining the federal workforce during the New Deal and after World War II.
A 2017 study from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington found that 35% of D.C.-area Jews were living in Montgomery County. That was about 105,300 people.
And for Jewish people, being near other people they can relate to is especially important, Bader said.
“It’s different than just a religion. We’re actually a family. We really believe that we all come from the same spiritual ancestor. When we’re with other Jews, it’s like we’re with family,” Bader said.
Jason Makstein, a North Potomac resident who runs the political blog Moderately MoCo, was born in Montgomery County and has always been a part of Jewish communities in various aspects. He said he doesn’t take the experiences he’s had being around such a large number of other Jews for granted.
“I think a lot of people that grew up here and haven’t been to as many other places don’t really realize how unique this is. So many of us continue to seek out these specific places because there’s other people in our community here,” Makstein said.
Debbie Ezrin, executive director of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, said seeking community is simply human nature.
“As humans, we seek community. We’re in community with the people who live in our neighborhood, with the people who go to school with us. There’s endless communities that we’re a part of. And for us as a Jewish community we really feel strongly that there is a very specific and unique importance of that community,” Ezrin said. “It’s something that uniquely connects us to each other.”
Bader said while there are different denominations of Judaism and people may practice differently, that familial bond is what makes being Jewish so unique.
“Having so many different kinds of Jews in one place [in the county] is extremely, extremely enriching to us, because no matter where you are there’s always somebody who can invite you in. There’s a language that we can all share, and it’s a culture that transcends millennia,” Bader said.
Ezrin expressed a similar sentiment. She said while some Jews may feel a more religious connection to the faith and for others it may be more about cultural heritage, all Jews seek community, just as all people do. She said that’s the benefit of living in a place like Montgomery County, where there are lots of different houses of worship and other centers that offer diversity in ways of practicing Judaism.
“If I asked, ‘What does it mean to be Jewish?’ I’d get 800 different answers, and all of them are the right ones. But people are seeking that connection with people who feel ‘Jewishly’ in the way that they do, and it’s just different than any other community that you’re a part of,” Ezrin said.
In Montgomery County, there are at least two Kosher grocery stores and multiple Kosher restaurants. There are multiple synagogues and community centers representing different ways of practicing Judaism. Multiple private Jewish schools operate within county borders, including the popular Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in North Bethesda. Montgomery County Public Schools close for major Jewish holidays, and has for years, which was a big draw for Ezrin. She used to work in Fairfax County, Virginia, but chose to live in and commute from Montgomery County especially for this reason.
“When you’re a parent raising kids in this county versus other jurisdictions, there’s great comfort in knowing that when it comes time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and you want to go to services or observe the holiday in some form, your kids are not going to get dinged for being out. That’s not true in some other jurisdictions in the region and in lots of parts of the country,” Ezrin said.
Siegel said it is empowering to see Jewish people leading the county government. County Executive Marc Elrich is Jewish, as are County Council President Evan Glass, Vice President Andrew Friedson and councilmember Sidney Katz. Recently, the council voted unanimously to pass a resolution against antisemitism.
“We have elected officials who are there for us, who speak out in public on the record as saying that the county will not tolerate this kind of antisemitism. It is a positive, enriching place to live Jewishly,” Siegel said.
Resilience in the face of hate
While the threat of antisemitism is very real, local Jewish leaders said the community cannot allow itself to be consumed by fear.
“We can’t let the current climate of antisemitism swallow up and become the totality of our experience as Jews in our daily lives. That would be a profound error. Being Jewish is about so much more than the Holocaust and combating antisemitism. Being Jewish is a joyful, meaningful, communal experience focused on wonderful values and a rich tradition,” said Siegel.
Bader said it’s important to bring the focus back to community.
“When we hear about these tragedies, there is mild fear. But that’s not the focus. We’re going to come back together, and we’re going to become stronger together,” Bader said.
For Ezrin’s congregation, that has meant striking a balance between taking appropriate security measures while staying welcoming and providing a warm, safe community. She has conversations about needed security but doesn’t want to create barriers that make congregants feel unwelcome. But security goes beyond logistics. Communities have to figure out the best ways to emotionally and intellectually process what’s happening, Ezrin said. And in many instances, communities are working to center hope over fear.
Ezrin told the story of a congregant who is a middle-school teacher whose students expressed fear following the graffiti incident at Whitman. They were concerned that maybe the school shouldn’t have held an assembly discussing antisemitism, because it could have triggered the graffiti.
“He tried to spin it around with the kids and help them think differently. What about the other way of thinking? How many people sat for the assembly, and maybe they did start reconsidering their beliefs or their actions? How many students now might start thinking differently about the perspective of other people that they wouldn’t have otherwise?” Ezrin relayed. “You can’t measure the goodness. It’s really easy to measure the bad.”
Makstein said while he is grateful to have the local community, it is important to acknowledge how unique and dangerous the threat of antisemitism is. For example, Makstein said he has attended congregations that have armed security guards or physical barriers at the entrances, which is something other religious groups may not experience.
“The more that you know, and the more you see, it’s upsetting. We can’t even go to the [Jewish Community Center] and feel safe,” Makstein said. “There’s just so much exhaustion when it comes to experiencing antisemitism … it gets hard to keep track of all the incidents.”
Siegel said JCRC has been focusing on collaborating with school leaders to determine how to best support the psychological needs of Jewish students.
“One of the things that I think is very poorly understood about Jews is the level of our inherited trauma that we still carry with us. Jews on the surface, appear to be doing OK and enjoying a certain degree of privilege. People forget that we’re less than 100 years out from the gas chambers and the infernos of the Holocaust, and that is imprinted on our souls and on our children’s souls,” Siegel said.
Bader says in times like these, the most important thing Jews can do is live out the principles of kiddush hashem – meaning to sanctify – and tikkun olam, which directly translates to “repair the world.”
“The whole point [of Judaism] is we’re trying to better the world. It’s a big concept, when there’s so much pain, there’s so much suffering in this world. We have to think: What can we do now? And we can do that on a local level,” Bader said.
While the darkness of antisemitism is present not only in the county but across the globe, Bader said he’s choosing to look to the light, especially in the season of Hanukkah, the festival of lights.
“Being in Montgomery County, having so many Jews in one place, being surrounded by so much family in itself is beautiful. I can’t go across the street without meeting other Jews, and that’s incredible. It’s like a family reunion whenever we go outside,” Bader said.
“Hanukkah is constantly about looking for that light, everywhere around me. I show my wife and my son all the menorahs in the windows in so many homes every single day. And you can’t beat that. That’s the value of living in Montgomery County. To be surrounded, literally every day, is a family reunion.”