NEW YORK – A small group of Orthodox Jews pitched a canopy tent with the banner “Meet a Jew, Make a Friend” in East Harlem on Monday, as a gesture of outreach amid the recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents in the area.
The initiative was organized by Jew in the City, a group dedicated to reversing negative attitudes about Orthodox Jews. It hopes to forge new connections in the neighborhood as a small-scale response to the recent uptick in violence.
“Because things have kind of gotten to a new level of scariness and higher tension, we decided to come out here today and really create conversation,” Jew in the City founder Allison Josephs told Haaretz, standing on the corner of 106th Street and 3rd Avenue. “We're not planning to solve world peace today, but just move the needle just a little bit.”
Josephs founded the organization in 2007 after herself becoming an Orthodox Jew. Growing up, she admits that her father, a neurologist, had perpetuated negative stereotypes about Orthodox Jews.
“My earliest memories from childhood were of my father coming home and telling me about his Hasidic patients: ‘They’re dirty, they’re smelly, they're ignorant, they can’t speak English,’” she recalled. “So as a fellow Jew, I looked at Orthodox Jews [that way], and it was only when I met some up close and personal, when I ate their rugelach and drank their coffee, that I saw them as human beings and I was able to see how many beautiful people there are in the community.”
Since then, Josephs’ father has also become Orthodox and she has made it her mission to fight negative stereotypes through social media and events she organizes – an approach she believes is vital to help build bridges between communities.
At least a dozen passersby stopped by on Monday, where they were offered free coffee and pastries. Two informational signs were also placed beside the tent: One explained the foundational principles of Judaism; another laid out the differences between various Orthodox Jewish groups.
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“Being a good religious person means treating other people well. It’s not just about the garb and the outward laws that you follow,” another Orthodox Jewish volunteer, Tzirel Norman, told Haaretz. “The fact that we actually came out here today – I hope that means something to people.”
Gladys, an African American woman who stopped by the booth, told Haaretz she was born and raised in New York City. “Nobody should be discriminating against anybody,” she said, following a short interaction with Josephs in the tent. Orthodox Jews “are people like anybody else. You should know people before you judge them.”
In 2019, the New York Police Department recorded 234 anti-Semitic incidents in New York City alone. And during the period between December 1 and January 6 this year, the Anti-Defamation League confirmed 43 anti-Semitic incidents in the state of New York alone – up from 30 incidents during the same five-week period a year ago.
These latest New York state figures include 11 reported assaults against Jews, including the mass stabbing in Monsey on December 22 that left five people injured at a Hanukkah party; 22 incidents of anti-Jewish harassment; and 10 acts of anti-Semitic vandalism.
In addition, there was a deadly shooting attack on a kosher supermarket in neighboring Jersey City on December 10, in which two assailants killed four people, two of them Jewish.
With this recent wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes, Josephs told Haaretz she feels like she and her family have “targets on [their] backs” when they go to a kosher store or to synagogue.
Despite this, she believes the Jewish community needs to engage in more outreach.
“I think that being proactively friendly and welcoming and finding human bonds is actually a much safer way to live, because the more you put the walls up, the more suspicion and hate can grow,” she said. “What we have to do is find ways to build bridges and ways to connect, and, hopefully, make more friends than enemies.”