After Bomb Threats Against Jewish Centers, Chicago Faith Groups Show Up for Neighbors

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By Jera Brown 3-28-2017
Image via lobstar28/Flickr

Jarell Wilson moved to Chicago in 2016. A recent seminary graduate, Wilson relocated to serve with a local congregation and pursue ordination in the United Methodist Church. But he soon discovered he missed reading Scripture in Hebrew. When Rabbi Craig Marantz, Wilson's friend and head rabbi at Emanuel Congregation in Edgewater, invited Wilson to a reading group, Wilson jumped at the chance. He began coming to the synagogue to read the Torah, and soon, Marantz and Wilson were part of each other's communal life.

On March 7, the congregation’s building partner, Chicago Jewish Day School, evacuated its students after receiving a bomb threat.

It was a shocking reminder to Wilson of the implications of his future role as a minister. And now, in today's climate of rising hate crimes and prejudice, Wilson sees his calling differently than he did when he started the ordination process six years ago.

“I thought that serving God would only mean looking out for my own flock,” Wilson said in a private Facebook post. “But the last six years have taught me that saying ‘Here am I’ to God's call means that all of Her children are my responsibility. Those children that were threatened are my kids.”

After the bomb threat, Wilson reached out to Marantz to offer his sympathies and support. Marantz said in a phone conversation that he was touched by Wilson’s concern.

When relationships are formed in ordinary moments, like Marantz's and Wilson's weekly reading groups, it allows for individuals to be there in a holistic way during times of crisis, Marantz said.

The Edgewater bomb threat was only one in a long list of anti-Semitic threats, on the rise in 2017. The Anti-Defamation League reports 164 bomb threats have been made to Jewish community centers and day schools across the country since January. Several of these threats took place in Chicago. On March 23, Israeli police arrested an American-Israeli Jewish man as a suspect behind the threats. No motive has yet been given.

In the wake of these threats, faith groups in Chicago have grown more intentional about coming together in solidarity — something many Jewish and Christian leaders alike credit to their religious teachings and their understanding of what it means to care for one's neighbor.

“How do we truly stand together? First by showing up. Second, by listening and seeking broader and shared truth. Third, by embracing each other as a collective force for good,” Marantz said.

On Feb. 5, the front windows of the Chicago Loop Synagogue were smashed and the front entrance was covered with swastika stickers. After the incident, nearly 1,000 Jewish, Muslim, and Christian community members met in the synagogue for “an interfaith gathering against hate,” sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund. The synagogue also received numerous cards and donations after the incident.

“We felt very alone. But we were not alone … one single act of hate led to hundreds of acts of love,” Lee Zoldan, president of the Chicago Loop Synagogue, said.

Rabbi Marantz expressed similar sentiment after the bomb threat at the day school, as interfaith clergy and other representatives from the Edgewater Community Religious Association, of which Marantz is a member, attended the Emanuel Congregation's Shabbat service on March 17. At the service, Rev. Barbara Cathey, pastor of Edgewater Presbyterian Church, read from a letter signed by 18 member organizations of the religious association, expressing their “deep sorrow and anger” over the hate acts and their “desire to be supportive of your congregation and members in any way we can, as together we seek justice and shalom for all.”

When ECRA member Emily Heitzman, a pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Chicago and organizer of the Edgewater Congregations Together youth group, heard of the bomb threat, she organized teen and adult leaders from the youth group to sign a card and send it to Marantz and the Emanuel community.

“We wanted the school and the congregation to know that we are praying for them, that we stand with them, that they are not alone,” Heitzman said. “We wanted them to know that we will continue to do whatever we can to shut down all forms of bigotry and hate.”

Despite response from religious communities across the city, not everyone feels encouraged. Rabbi Frederick Reeves, of KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue in Hyde Park, which also received a bomb threat, said he is still disheartened.

In a post on the synagogue’s website, Reeves wrote that he used the term “dis-heartened” deliberately:

“We understand the heart as the seat of both love and hatred … When we see hatred expressed against our neighbors or against strangers in our community, our hearts should be affected, and as members of a democracy each of us should be dis-heartened, and we bear the responsibility to act against that hate and bigotry.”

He went on to write that President Donald Trump has not done enough to stand up against the rise of hatred across the country.

“The president says that he is not an antisemite [sic],” Reeves wrote. “That’s probably true, but as the leader of this country he needs to take actions and to make real statements to reduce this hate because his responsibility is not bound by his personal feelings; he has responsibility for the heart of this nation.”

On Feb. 24, KAM Isaiah Israel and Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a multi-issue organization founded by Rev. Jesse Jackson to fight for social change, co-hosted an interfaith press conference in response to the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes in Chicago. At the conference, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders stood together to admonish the Trump administration for not doing more.

The Trump administration is considering whether to eliminate diplomatic staff positions within the State Department that target anti-Semitism and the Muslim communities, according to Bloomberg. President Trump’s proposed budget, released on March 16, would decrease the State Department’s budget by up to 30 percent.

“Because we're all created in God's image, full of intrinsic worth and thus mutually responsible for each other's dignity and wholeness,” being a mensch — a person of integrity — goes beyond offering sympathy, Marantz said.

“We have to sustain this mutual responsibility with love, kindness and grace. And some patience and perseverance, too.”

Jera Brown is an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. 

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