Hope amid crisis for Jewish people in Oklahoma

By Kedrick Nettleton, Faith Editor

Though months have passed since the tragic synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, minority communities in America continue to face challenges and, in extreme cases, violence. As America continues to grapple with issues of equality and works towards harmony, The Bison looks back at one of the pivotal news stories of 2018. 

It’s November 16. A placid fall day in downtown Oklahoma City. The leaves are falling, swept by the wind into small rustling piles at various points around the parking lot of Emmanuel Synagogue – a parking lot which is empty. The synagogue’s offices are closed in preparation for the Sabbath.  

The reception area inside is fashionably modern. There are comfortable chairs, a couch and a polished coffee table. A vase sits on top of the table, filled with drooping, dying flowers.  

It’s November 16 – almost three weeks after 11 people died in a Pittsburgh synagogue October 27, shot to death by a man motivated by hate. The flowers on the table were given to Emmanuel by various entities around the Oklahoma City community as an act of support and solidarity. It’s easy to see why they’re left on the table, even past their freshness.   

“They were picked from someone’s garden and left anonymously the next day,” Rabbi Abby Jacobson said.  

Jacobson, leader of the Emmanuel Synagogue and one of the most prominent leaders in the local Jewish community, is the only one in the building. She lives an interesting and busy life. 

In larger cities, where the Jewish population is larger, different Rabbis in the community serve different purposes.

One might preside over funerals, say, while a different Rabbi tutors those preparing for a bar mitzvah. “Here, that’s all me,” Jacobson said.

A large part of her job involves advocacy for the customs of local Jews, customs that are sometimes misunderstood and need clarification. 

This advocacy can take her anywhere from schools to local prisons.  

But not on October 27. 

On October 27, Rabbi Jacobson was in front of her congregation when the reports of the shooting first came in from Pennsylvania. 

“The first thing I thought of was that we have security procedures in place, and our threat level just went up,” she said.  

It’s a fact of life in 2018 America that any place, at any time, could light up with gunfire, but Jacobson and the rest of her community have good reason to be extra cautious.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, messages and acts of anti-Semitism are on the rise in America; in fact, reports of incidents have more than doubled since 2016. 

“Of the bias crimes that there are,” Jacobson said, “anti-Semitism is either the number one or number two highest [percentage].” 

Still, even though the Emmanuel Synagogue immediately put its security measures in place after the Pittsburgh attack, Jacobson realizes that the situation in Oklahoma is not as dire. 

“There’s not a lot of anti-Semitism in Oklahoma because there aren’t a lot of Semites in Oklahoma,” she said. “We’re just not on people’s radar in the same way.”  

Jacobson rejects any and all simplistic approaches to understanding the hate that motivates violent people.

She’s quick to point out that anti-Semitism has a long history, and hate towards Jews can be motivated by anything from religious differences to harmful stereotyping. 

More than anything, perhaps, hatreds towards Jews – and minorities in general – is built out of fear of difference. 

“The inquisition is not directed against Jews and Muslims because there’s something wrong with Jews and Muslims – it’s because we were the two religious minorities in the [American] community,” she said. “For some people, all difference is considered dangerous.”  

Political turbulence, as well as harmful political messaging, can also play a factor in the mobilization of violent people against minority groups.

“Using anti-somebody rhetoric, or normalizing discriminatory rhetoric, also causes people generally to move up the pyramid of violence,” Jacobson said.  

She can talk at length about hatred towards Jews. She can talk about its history, its causes, its effects – but that isn’t what she’s focused on.

On November 16, three weeks after gunfire lit up a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jacobson is still able to identify positives that came from the attack. Small positives, certainly, compared to such a wasteful loss of life, but positives all the same.  

First of all, she points out the preparedness of the Pittsburgh community.

“Survivors of the Pittsburgh shooting have said they recently had active-shooter training that saved people’s lives,” she said. “They had an active security plan, they activated it. More people could have died. They saved people’s lives.”  

She’s also quick to point out that there are more people dedicated to kindness and love than are dedicated to hate and violence, especially locally.

“I think the Jewish community in Oklahoma is very lucky,” she said.  “Even despite this increase in Anti-Semitism, we have a huge outpouring of love.”  

At a vigil in Oklahoma City after the Pittsburgh attack, about 450 people showed up to show support. 

“At least half of whom were not Jewish,” Jacobson said.  “Random people call,” she said. “They say, ‘I’m so sorry to hear; I just want to tell you that we love you.’”  

And as one who realizes the many intricate factors that go into something like wide-spread hate and bias, Jacobson knows that everyone has a responsibility to stop the harmful thinking that has become so toxic in America. 

It’s everyone job, she says, to be open to examining themselves. 

“We’re not good at hearing that we’re wrong,” she said. “Be willing to be wrong.”  

Jacobson also urges people to engage with other cultures, something that is especially easy in the modern, media-driven world of 2018.

“It is a tremendous gift to bother to learn about other people…to travel to another place, to learn about people who are not like you.”  

“Diversity is a good thing, not a bad thing, other people are not dangerous, you can hate an idea without hating the people, you can dislike an idea without demonizing the people who believe it,” she said.  

This, perhaps, is the great lesson of November 16, three weeks after the Pittsburgh shooting – to take personal responsibility to change the world for the better.

And if enough people do, it could hopefully be a long time before withered flowers sit again on the coffee table at Emmanuel Synagogue.  

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