Between White Supremacists and Black Hebrew Israelite Shooter, New Jersey Jews Feel 'Like Sitting Ducks'

Tensions with non-Jewish residents have been on the rise and locals tell Haaretz they fear for their safety as anti-Semitic attacks continue and hate speech becomes a near-daily occurrence

Orthodox Jewish men attending the funeral service of Mindel Ferencz who was killed in a kosher market that was the site of a gun battle in Jersey City, December 11, 2019.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

NEW JERSEY – A day after Tuesday’s deadly shooting attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, Avraham Hershkowitz made his way to the scene of the crime to pay his respects.

Originally a New Yorker, Hershkowitz now lives about 90 minutes south in Lakewood, home to a growing Orthodox-Jewish community where tensions with the non-Jewish population have been rising.

“We’re sitting ducks – you know what that means?” he asks Haaretz. “You know when people go to the shooting range and shoot Canadian geese? That’s who we are to them! That’s who Leah Ferencz was – she was a sitting duck!”

Ferencz, 33, was one of two members of the Jewish community killed last week when the attackers – David N. Anderson, 47, and Francine Graham, 50 – targeted her kosher store in the burgeoning Jewish neighborhood. The other Jewish person killed in the attack was Moshe Deutsch, 24, who was shopping in the store at the time. The other victims were Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, 49, who worked in the store, and New Jersey detective Joseph Seals, 40, who was shot to death in an earlier incident at a nearby cemetery.

The attack shook New Jersey’s Jewish community to the core. While the killers’ motives were originally unclear, authorities later confirmed the incident was fueled by anti-Semitism and anti-law enforcement beliefs. According to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, the original target of the attack may have been the Jewish school adjacent to the supermarket, where over 50 children were studying Torah.

Like their counterparts in Brooklyn, New Jersey’s Orthodox-Jewish residents are no strangers to anti-Semitism. Hershkowitz, for instance, recounts how in the week he was about to close on his apartment in Lakewood, he and his wife were walking back home from synagogue when a man in a passing car screamed at them: “Dirty fucking Jews, get out of here! What are you doing here?”

A passerby stopping to talk with two Jewish men in Jersey City on December 13, 2019, close to the kosher supermarket where three people were shot dead on Tuesday.
Mark Lennihan,AP

“We didn’t bother anyone, we were just walking,” Hershkowitz says. “This is happening in 2020. This is not Europe 50 years ago; this is today.”

Although there has been a heightened police presence in Lakewood since the shooting, it hasn’t brought a greater sense of security to the Jewish community, Hershkowitz says.

“I and many other people do not feel safe when entering a shul or a temple,” he continues. “There aren’t the proper security measures as well as the proper funding in place, because, the way it is, most congregations are living on donations.

“When people go to shul they say ‘Lock the doors,’ because what stops any white supremacist from pulling up in front of your shul, entering and taking out a .50 caliber or a semi-automatic and taking out everybody?” he asks. “It really does not feel safe.”

In New Jersey’s Ocean County, where Lakewood is located, tensions have been running high in recent times. As the township’s Orthodox-Jewish community has seen a population boom in recent decades – from around 60,000 in 2000 to more than 100,000 as of 2017 – families seeking more space have moved to neighboring townships like Toms River or Jackson. This expansion has led to a backlash from some of their non-Orthodox neighbors, who say it is causing overdevelopment and putting a strain on local resources such as schools.

Facebook groups and websites dedicated to attacking Jews for these issues have emerged over the past few years. One such site, Rise Up Ocean County, says it aims to “preserve and improve the quality of life” in the area. But a scroll through its Facebook posts quickly reveals content that includes caricatures of Jews, accusations of laziness and freeloading, and displays of anger toward the Jewish community on a variety of issues. Commenters go as far as calling for killing Jews with “rat poison” and saying “Jews have no business being alive.” Over 16,000 people follow the page, which has been the subject of several critical stories in local media outlets.

‘How can I not speak out?’

Hindy Bertram is an Orthodox-Jewish resident of Jackson Township. She is the victim of anti-Semitic abuse for her efforts to combat online hate speech. The mother of four was approached by Haaretz last summer for an article detailing the extent of anti-Semitic social media activity surrounding Ocean County, but originally refused to be interviewed. However, she agreed to go on the record after last week’s attack and for her name to be published.

“I don’t feel safe,” she admits. “Quite frankly, there’s a part of talking to a reporter that doesn’t feel safe – it makes me a target to some degree. But how can I not speak out? How could I look my children in the eye and tell them I didn’t stand up against those who hate us blindly just because we exist?” she adds.

When Bertram first heard about the kosher store shooting, she, like many others, wasn’t sure if Jews had been the intended target. “Initially, it was awful – any shooting or act of violence is awful,” she says. “As more details emerged, it got more and more sickening. Finding out that the suspect had ties to the Hebrew Israelites, I still don’t have a coherent response to that.

Some of the comments to posts on the Rise Up Ocean County Facebook page.
Screenshot from Rise Up Ocean Co

“I’m ‘used to’ white supremacy,” she says. “It’s an anti-Semitism as old as time, and it’s clearly all based on conspiracy theories. Hebrew Israelites, in contrast, believe that I’m not a real Jew. That idea’s a lot harder to try to integrate or understand. It feels more personal.”

Bertram is referring to the Black Hebrew Israelites, an anti-Semitic sect whose members see themselves as the true “chosen people” and who believe that black people, Hispanic people and Native Americans are the true descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel. At least one of the shooters was reportedly a one-time member of the group, some of whose branches are classified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

People in the local community are scared, says Bertram. She notes that “Jews have seen this before, over and over again, throughout history.” But despite the fear and unease, she believes “connection is vital” and that this is not the time for Jews to close themselves off. “I think it’s even more important now to connect with other people and not further alienate ourselves,” she observes. “I could understand why [people would want to], but for starters everyone does go back to ‘real life.’ The day-to-day doesn’t stop. We still have to exist and function within the world at large.

“Closing ourselves off in self-imposed or forced ‘ghettos’ has never benefited anyone,” she adds. “It means that people don’t have an opportunity to form relationships with Orthodox Jews, who, besides for the value inherent in any friendship or acquaintance, can also correct misinformation or misunderstandings.”

For this reason, Bertram says, the Orthodox-Jewish community’s show of support toward the other victims of the shooting is of the utmost importance. Online fundraising campaigns have been launched for the families of both Detective Seals and store worker Rodriguez, raising tens of thousands of dollars to help support them in their time of need.

Another Orthodox-Jewish Lakewood resident, who uses the pseudonym Donovan Presley online, says that while the events in Jersey City were heartbreaking, they were “not surprising at all.”

“People are resilient, but of course everyone talks about it,” he says. “It’s very close to home. From my perspective there is serious concern – but who has time to live scared?”

The shooting, he explains, “crystallized our fears and made them much more tangible.” Over the past few years, Presley says, he has become much more vigilant and aware of his surroundings. “I have not discussed this with my kids, but I think I may need to,” he adds.

‘Very disturbing’

During his visit to the Jersey City crime scene last week, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said he stands in solidarity with the Jewish community and that the state “will leave no stone unturned” in the fight against anti-Semitism.

Murphy tells Haaretz that “all the data supports the fact that anti-Semitic behavior is on the rise, frighteningly so – not just in New Jersey but around the country and, frankly, we see it in Europe and around the world.”

The fight against anti-Semitism involves “a combination of a lot of things,” he says. “It’s a combination of law enforcement, education, how we use the bully pulpit. I think the responsibility of someone like myself – if you’re in a position of high responsibility, how you use that is extremely important,” he adds, referring to social media. “So, it’s really important that I and we collectively are as responsible as we can be at a moment like this, and that we learn lessons.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, center, leaving after visiting a religious school in Jersey City on December 12, a day after a shooting that left three victims dead at a kosher store adjacent to the school.
Kevin Hagen/AP

Murphy calls the situation in Ocean County and the online hatred being spread about Orthodox Jews “very disturbing.”

“We take it very seriously, and we won’t be satisfied until we’re batting 1,000, as we say in baseball,” he adds.

Hershkowitz, who has a 5-year-old son, says he talks to his child in general terms about safety issues. Next year, the Hershkowitzes are enrolling their son to a larger Jewish school, and security there has been one of their main concerns. Beyond the potential for a violent incident, though, Hershkowitz says he often experiences anti-Semitic abuse as part of his daily routine.

“You get comments directed at you constantly,” he says. “We go to Trader Joe’s and the stuff that people say behind your back – my wife and I just cringe and think: What did we do wrong? We’re just shopping.

“I shouldn’t have to go into the store and feel like I should take my kippa off – which I haven’t done yet – but I shouldn’t have to feel that way,” he concludes.