The Biden administration recently released a report detailing a national strategy for combatting antisemitism. The report highlighted the fact that although Jews account for just over 2% of the U.S. population, they account for 63% of religiously motivated hate crimes. The report includes more than 100 steps the administration plans to take to raise awareness of antisemitism, to protect Jewish communities, and to build relationships with allies. It is against this backdrop that the Department of Homeland Security is including Nashville in its engagement with impacted communities across the country.
DHS officials met last month with community leaders, clergy, school personnel, and staff of the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville as the first step in their efforts. Leslie Kirby, president of the Jewish Federation says, “We’re very appreciative of the Biden Administration’s efforts to tackle the alarming increase in antisemitism. It is a very positive sign that they are sending federal representatives to local Jewish communities to hear firsthand what people are experiencing.”
According to Brenda Abdelall, Assistant Secretary of DHS in the Office of Partnership and Engagement, “We participated in listening sessions hosted by the White House to develop strategies for dealing with antisemitism. The strategies came from the close to, if not over, 1,000 participants.”
Abdelall says that each community represented at the listening sessions presented different needs based on support and resources available. In Nashville, concerns about the rise in antisemitism have escalated over the last year resulting from the distribution of antisemitic flyers in local neighborhoods, and the defacing of homes with swastikas and other racist tropes.
Samantha Vinograd, Assistant Secretary of DHS in the office of Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention, says, “No one should be concerned about their safety because of their faith. We have seen an unacceptable rise in violent crime, including antisemitism. The strategy we published included, in our view, things necessary to protect the homeland from threats.”
One of the neighborhoods targeted by the antisemitic fliers surrounds West End Synagogue. Board president Barry Allen attended the DHS meeting to both share the congregation’s experiences and fears, and to learn what the administration is doing to address them. “I read about the antisemitism policy and understood it to be an important document that intends to provide serious resources,” he says, “I am impressed that two assistant secretaries came to listen and are interested in following up with our community.”
A chief concern among the participants in the session is how to keep schools safe and protect students from antisemitism. Locally, students in Williamson County schools are experiencing threats, name calling, and in one case, physical violence. Deborah Oleshansky is director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee at the Federation. She says, “We continue to receive
reports from students and parents in Williamson County and other local and private schools about antisemitic incidents. We are glad DHS and the administration are taking these issues seriously and will continue to partner with federal and state law enforcement in combatting antisemitism.”
Daniella Pressner, head of school at Akiva School, says she is grateful DHS is taking the time to better understand the needs of the Jewish community. “It is clear from the discussion that there is work to be done in Nashville and the surrounding areas and I hope that our community can continue to be involved in efforts that lead the conversation to help support our city's children and parents.”
Another area of concern is providing safe spaces for the community to come together. Evan Nahmias is a board member of the Gordon Jewish Community Center. He says, “My major concerns for the J are providing a welcoming home away from home for the Nashville area Jewish community, ensuring that JCC functions, such as the 8th annual Kosher Nashville Hot Chicken Festival and JAM Fest, scheduled for October 22, on the grounds of the JCC, encourage non-Jewish neighbor participation within a secure environment, and continuing to invest in the professional development of its staff and security by continued engagement with local, state, and federal law enforcement and positive community professionals.”
As Nahmias pointed out, a top focus is developing relationships with those outside the Jewish community. Vinograd says education remains a key part of the administration’s plan. “There is a general push for education at the state level of Holocaust remembrance and awareness,” she says. Additionally, according to Jeremy Brook, chair of the board of the Gordon JCC, “I think organizations like the JCC can play an important role in winning hearts and minds. There's only so much law enforcement can do, and while we can and must rely on them, we should also do what we can, as a community, to positively influence culture in our city.”
To that end, Abdelall says DHS provides resources for communities while at the same time, providing education. “Our office continues to do everything we can to ensure Jewish communities and other impacted communities have everything they need.”
Vinograd points out some of those resources. “First is to understand how to ask for help if and when an individual shows signs of violence. Second, we encourage community members to look at the range of grant proposals available to enhance physical security, such as the federal nonprofit security grants. And third, it is important to know where to get the most updated information on increasing threat awareness.”
The DHS team is planning to return later this month for a follow up visit. Kirby says, “The key thing in situations like this is for the government officials to really listen to the local concerns, and they really did. They’ve already followed up with us after the meeting to answer questions that came up and to offer additional resources. I’m hopeful that the new policy will be useful in reducing incidents of antisemitism and providing a stronger response when incidents occur.”
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