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‘We were never taught’: Young Jews in the U.S. encounter anti-Semitism firsthand

They learned about the Holocaust and pogroms. That all happened long ago. This happened in Pittsburgh.

Yael Fisher speaks about her reaction to the Tree of Life synagogue shooting with fellow members of Avodah, a Jewish service corps. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Shots rang out in Pittsburgh. And in Washington, for the first time in her life, Yael Fisher felt scared to be Jewish.

“I had never felt in danger because I’m Jewish, physically in danger,” Fisher, 22, told her friends as she picked over the remnants of their Chipotle dinner last week. “I had to run an errand alone, and I was nervous. I’ve never felt that before.”

Her three friends, all of them also 22 and Jewish, nodded gravely.

Hayley Berger told Fisher she remembers the day she first became aware that there are Americans who hate Jews, who hate Jews so much that they would murder. It was the day in April 2014 when a white supremacist fatally shot three people outside the Jewish Community Center and a Jewish retirement home in her Kansas suburb.

Reuben Siegman recalls the day he learned: He was living in St. Louis last year when a Jewish cemetery in town was vandalized. Graves were toppled again, days later, at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia.

“That drove me to wear a kippah for a while,” he told his friends. “It was like: ‘I will be Jewish. And there’s no violence you can do that will scare me away from that.’ ”

For many young Jews across the nation, last month’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was a jarring lesson. Many millennials who grew up hearing about anti-Semitism from their parents and grandparents think of the Holocaust, Eastern European pogroms and the Spanish Inquisition when they think about violence against Jews — stories they read in history books about events that happened well over half a century ago, and all in the old country, not the United States.

The Pittsburgh rampage, committed by a gunman who reportedly shouted “All Jews must die” as he fired, shattered what remained of that illusion.

Young Jews in the United States are now aware: They live in a country where anti-Semitism still lives — and where it kills.

The idea that hatred against Jews resides in the past has been fading for the past few years as anti-Semitism has reared its head repeatedly. Hate crimes have increased. In the days since the Pittsburgh shooting alone, vandals wrote “F--- Jews” on the wall of an Irvine, Calif., synagogue and “Kill All Jews” inside a Brooklyn synagogue.

Twitter seethes daily with anti-Semitic messages that attract billions of views. President Trump himself has been accused of anti-Semitic messaging, and when neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville last year chanting “Jews will not replace us,” Trump responded that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

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For Gaby Kirschner, 24, the realization dawned in May of last year, when she went to a New York City protest actions of the Trump administration.

She had never been very religious; she still describes her childhood Hebrew school as “an old lady in a basement yelling at me after school.” She learned about the Holocaust there, but she never learned that Jews had been discriminated against in the United States, barred from social, professional and educational opportunities for decades. “We were never taught this is still going on today,” she said.

But on that day last May, Kirschner heard a group of pro-Trump counterprotesters shouting “Jew” at her as she walked down the street. It happened on Twitter, too. Strangers replying to her tweets about sports, writing back, “Jew.” She was rattled.

She went back to the religious practice she had left after her bat mitzvah at age 13. She started attending Jewish communal meetings, feeling pride in her faith: “If they want me erased, well, here I am!”

Yet she still felt scared on the street, wondering whether a stranger looking at her might sympathize with neo-Nazis, wondering if he could read her identity right on her face. After that day at the protest, she did something else that she had been pondering previously for cosmetic reasons, and now desired for safety: She got a nose job.

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Five years ago, young Jews were keenly aware of discrimination experienced by other people — and less focused on discrimination against Jews. In a major survey of American Jews conducted by Pew Research, 80 percent of respondents ages 18 to 29 said there was a lot of discrimination against Muslims, compared with 58 percent of 18-to-29-year-old Americans as a whole. Sixty-nine percent of young Jews said there was a lot of discrimination against blacks and Hispanics, compared with 50 and 57 percent of young Americans.

Just 39 percent of young Jews said in 2013 that they perceived anti-Semitism as prevalent in America, according to a new analysis of the survey data by age conducted this week for The Washington Post by Pew’s associate research director Greg Smith.

By 2018, Jews of the same age were far more likely to report perceiving discrimination. When the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding published a survey this year asking a diverse sample of 500 Jews and 500 Muslims about their experience of discrimination in America, Jews ages 18 to 29 were more likely than older Jews to say they had personally experienced discrimination because of their faith: 64 percent of young Jews said yes.

Thirty-five percent of young Jews in the survey guessed “most” Americans of their faith had experienced religious discrimination, far more than the 10 percent of Jews ages 30-to 49 who answered the same way or the 13 percent of Jews older than 50 (or than Muslims of any age).

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Older generations of Jewish Americans have told their children the stories of persecution that their ancestors fled to get to this country, whether they left Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, fled the Nazi Holocaust midcentury or came from any number of other regions of the world where Jews were in harm’s way.

But American anti-Semitism — the quotas restricting Jews’ entrance to certain universities, the neighborhoods where Jews were unwelcome, the organizational discrimination that kept Jews out of hotels and summer camps until they created their own — all of that very rarely makes it into Hebrew school curriculums.

So millennials tend to think of anti-Semitism as an old problem, and a European one.

“My understanding of anti-Semitism was I thought about the Holocaust my grandparents experienced. I hadn’t necessarily thought about it in the context of the modern day,” said Gaby Joseph, 24. That changed when Joseph was studying abroad in Copenhagen in 2015, and a gunman killed a guard outside a synagogue there. Police suspected he was influenced by the terrorists who killed shoppers in a kosher grocery store in Paris the month before.

“I felt honestly a little naive, as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, that I could be shocked by something like this,” Joseph said.

She emailed her grandfather from her study abroad program, telling him how distraught she was by the shooting. He replied with just one line, she said: “It’s hard being a Jew.”

Suddenly she saw how different her perception of anti-Semitism was than his, how safe she had always felt as a Jew in a world where he felt imperiled.

Last week, before she packed into the crowded sanctuary at Adas Israel synagogue in Northwest Washington to pay tribute to the people killed in Pittsburgh, she opened up that one-line email once more. Again, it felt like a gut punch.

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For others, it hit home for the first time watching the news after the Pittsburgh attack. “Watching the news the other day was the first time I ever cried in front of the news,” said Corey Teich, 27.

He was sickened by the discourse that the Pittsburgh shooter allegedly read and embraced — the attitude, spread online, that Jews are outsiders who are undermining American society.

“I so rarely ever thought about it. You know the word ‘anti-Semitism.’ You know about the Holocaust. You read about it in Hebrew school,” he said. “You know it’s happened in history. You know that theoretically it’s possible. But you never think about it, because you feel safe — probably so did the people who lived in Squirrel Hill.”

His Jewish identity lies in bagels and lox and Seinfeld; he rarely attends a synagogue, he said. But he found himself feeling an urge he couldn’t quite explain this week, to put on his chai necklace — the Hebrew word for “life.”

The prejudice, he said, is “more prevalent and more real” than he ever knew. “It definitely makes me prouder to be who I am, because there are some people who want to take that away.”

For the young adults eating takeout Chipotle near Dupont Circle on Thursday night, the next day loomed large — the first Shabbat since the massacre at Tree of Life would begin at sundown Friday. Jews around the world issued calls to “show up for Shabbat,” inviting Jews and non-Jews alike to gather in synagogues.

These four young people, participants in the Jewish service corps Avodah, planned to host 30 guests at the home where they live during their one-year commitment to work in social service jobs. They hoped to offer solace to people in mourning. They hoped they could cook enough food.

For Fisher, the reality of the hatred outside their close-knit circle couldn’t quite sink in. She told her friends she had been reading statistics published by the Anti-Defamation League showing the largest one-year increase ever recorded in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States.

“That’s crazy. I don’t feel like I have ever encountered that directly,” she said. “Obviously, it exists — but where is it?”

She paused. Now, they all knew the answer.

“In Pittsburgh.”