As I made my way to synagogue this past Shabbat morning, knowing that my 9-year-old twin daughters had already been brought there by my husband, it wasn’t a rote act and it didn’t feel like just another Shabbat. Even with the incredible security team we have benefited from for years, my walk alone to shul felt very clearly like an act of defiance in a world that seems increasingly inhospitable to people of faith like me.
Recent news of Jews being assaulted in places all within a half-hour drive of my hometown—daily attacks in New York City and Brooklyn, during a violent fatal shooting in Jersey City, not to mention the seventh night of Chanukah’s machete attack in Monsey—has impacted Jews worldwide. Perhaps some have chosen to skip synagogue just because the act of going to shul requires steely faith that—we may not want to admit—sometimes wavers in scary times. I have felt very alone the past few weeks, and as I turned on the news or looked at my phone after Shabbat, my husband and I would gulp at the terrible news about fellow Jews, feeling powerless to prevent this onslaught of hate.
What I perhaps didn’t know, however, is that my caring neighbors in Bergenfield have also been equally shocked and disturbed by the outright xenophobia and negative generalizations about Jews inherent in these reports. It is anti-Semitism, yes, but it is also garden-variety intolerance of “the other,” creating a scapegoat of some random person or group because of some kind of perception that they represent.
But all that changed this weekend. I arrived in shul, and immediately learned that a group of local residents were gathering at a corner in Bergenfield that intersects a number of paths to or from the Bergenfield shuls, “to express their support for us as we make our way home,” Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger explained. He urged us to go and greet them even if our paths home from synagogue were not in that direction.
As we walked toward home, I saw that there was a group of about 30 people, some of them holding signs, like a rally. I wasn’t prepared and didn’t expect this. From the direction I was walking, the first and second signs I saw, held by young men dressed in hoodies, read, “Hate has no place in Bergenfield,” and “We stand with our Jewish neighbors.” My heart gave a tug but I kept my cool. The third sign I saw was “Diversity. Inclusivity. Bergenfield.” A beautiful sentiment about a town I’ve lived in for 12 years. I certainly agreed with it.
The last sign I saw before I burst into tears was stenciled with care in different colors, in all caps. It was held by a woman about my age. Her sign said “WE STAND WITH OUR JEWISH NEIGHBORS.” The bottom of the sign had a lovingly drawn red heart. My daughters didn’t know what was happening, but as the woman saw tears forming in my eyes, she stepped forward to hug me. My daughters twittered around, asking questions like, “Does my mom know you?” “What’s going on?” “What’s your name?” and “Mommy, how long are we staying here? I’m hungry!” The woman continued to hug me, knowing that it wasn’t time for an explanation. It was just time for a hug. A hug that said, “I get it.”
The kindness of my neighbors standing outside the Church of the Good Shepherd in Bergenfield is not something I will forget. These residents, these good neighbors, with a simple event with handmade signs organized by a woman I’ve never met, named Donna Flannery, showed us that we are not alone. They showed me maybe we can’t stem the tide of hate in some places, but yes, we have allies, people who will stand up for goodness and kindness, inclusivity and the right to pray to whatever entity works for us.
I was happy that our local councilwoman, Ora Kornbluth, was out there serving as a liaison among multiple communities and introducing me to a few people. “I am proud and privileged to represent and be part of the Bergenfield community,” she told me later. “It’s a diverse community where neighbors look out for and support each other. It is one community, welcoming to all and free of hate.”
Ora put me in touch with the organizer after Shabbat, with whom I had the pleasure of texting on Monday. Flannery explained: “It came about because I was so saddened by the recent anti-Semitic attacks and I just thought that I could sit home and be sad or I could do something. I went to Facebook and posted a message in two Bergenfield groups and on my personal page and asked anyone who shared my feelings to meet there on Saturday morning. Even though the weather wasn’t great we had a nice turnout and we were overwhelmed by how many people came by to say hello and to thank us for being there. We hadn’t anticipated that type of response. My heart was certainly touched by the response.”
Rabbi Neuburger also expressed his thoughts after the weekend. “Our congregation is very grateful to our neighbors who stood nearby on a rainy Saturday morning with messages of warmth and support, expressing the dignity of maintaining a chasmic distance away from the vileness and violence of anti-Semitism. Volunteering together in township governance, in emergency services and town programs has shaped a town where our constituents are respectful of each other. Bergenfield leadership: Take great pride in what you have accomplished!”
Bergenfield gets it. Bergenfield showed me there are still good people in this world. There is hope. Yesh Tikvah.
Afterword: With a brief note of gratitude, I shared the beautiful photos of this event seen on this page, taken by Alfred Cardenas, on Facebook on Saturday evening. As of this writing, my post was shared 396 times and liked by 652 people.
By Elizabeth Kratz