lots of people in an open space, israeli flags waving above them
A 2015 Israeli Independence Day celebration at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. (Photo/file)

In light of bomb threats, consider the history of the JCC movement

In the first two months of 2017, more than 70 JCCs and other Jewish institutions across North America suffered through nearly 100 telephoned bomb threats that demanded evacuations, amid elevated concerns about the rising tide of anti-Semitism that forced a Jewish community typically insulated from social prejudice to rethink its own American standing.

Even as some 20 percent of American Jews backed the new president, hailed his right-leaning support of Israel and rejected the historic Jewish affinity for liberal causes and candidates, the election of Donald Trump has unleashed a wave of domestic anti-Semitism unseen since the pre-World War II era. While few consider the chief executive an anti-Semite himself, many national Jewish communal leaders hold him responsible for offering a platform to bigotry and for his refusal to offer timely, specific condemnations of what is known as the world’s oldest hatred.

It may be surprising that JCCs, rather than synagogues, have suffered these threats. Houses of religious worship seem to offer the most obvious and pointed focus for anti-Jewish hatred. Most historic anti-Semitism, from ancient charges of deicide to the medieval blood libel and modern supersessionist thoughts espoused by some evangelicals, grew from a theological base.

Yet the anonymous phone threats have largely targeted synagogues housed next to a JCC, such as Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

The anti-Semitic targeting of JCCs reveals important insights into the nature of this anti-Jewish bigotry, the relationship of Jews to the larger American society and the opportunities this hatred affords Americans of all religious backgrounds in the larger fight against discrimination.

With origins in the late 19th century, the modern JCC grew from the vision of Mordecai Kaplan’s notion of Judaism as an evolving civilization, informed by a changing Jewish history and adapting to different varieties of Jewish life from place to place.

JCCs positioned themselves at the center of the American Jewish experience, lowering the barrier of entry for interested Jews (and non-Jews) to learn about Jewish culture, engage in Jewish learning, socialize with friends and, as a central feature of most centers, exercise their bodies in a holistic approach to defining and expressing their Jewishness.

JCCs expand the definition of “who is a Jew,” offering an identity platform for those uninterested in joining a synagogue. “Secular Jew,” a seemingly oxymoronic descriptor, finds a home at the JCC. In a period of impressive Jewish integration into the mainstream, JCCs also welcome non-Jews to learn about Judaism and interact with new interfaith friends.

JCCs, according to Judy Wolff-Bolton, the executive director of the Osher Marin JCC, “reflect the deep-rooted Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, to be open and welcoming of all with an inclusive and diverse big-tent approach.”

At the JCC of San Francisco, an average of more than 2,000 non-Jews walk through the doors each and every day, a now former employee once told me. This embrace of difference highlights the JCC as the embodiment of American pluralist democracy, a place where people can congregate and socialize while still respecting the import of their religious and cultural differences.

The recent targeting of JCCs, though, creates a civil rights paradox and opportunity for American Jews. Once victims of anti-Semitic quotas in the 1920s and the populist “America First” movement of the 1930s, Jews in the contemporary era enjoy the power of inclusion in white America.

The black-Jewish alliance of the 1950s, drawing together two ethnic communities with a common desire for political justice, was fractured when the rise of Black Power in the 1960s dramatized the fundamental racial differences between the groups.

For the last 50 years, Jewish progressives have suffered, ironically, the ambivalence of a privileged social status that divorces them from communities of color they wish to help. Last year’s Jewish communal debate over the inclusion of an anti-Israel statement in the Black Lives Matter platform dramatized the point.

The recent uptick in domestic anti-Semitism has changed all that.

For the first time since the 1940s, Jews have joined other persecuted minority groups on the American scene. And for the first time since the 1950s, Jews enjoy the opportunity to reach across ethnic, racial and religious lines to re-establish their liberal bona fides — which they are, in dramatic fashion.

When the new president signed an executive order discriminating against Muslim immigrants to the United States, HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which originally and for many years supported Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and later Nazi Germany) actively reached out to Muslim immigrants. Its petition opposing the president’s directive quickly counted the signatures of more than 1,900 American rabbis from across the denominations. Nineteen rabbis, including Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, chose arrest in New York City in February to draw national Jewish attention to the cause.

Two generations ago, Jews leveraged their marginality to stand with African Americans. Today, Jews join Muslim Americans who face religious discrimination.

American Jews, in ways unseen since the protests of the 1960s, are taking to the streets in defense of a group of disenfranchised immigrants who might otherwise be seen as their enemies. If there is a way to invert hatred into love, this is it.

Marc Dollinger

Marc Dollinger is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University, where he teaches a course on anti-Semitism.