It’s been 70 years since the liberation of the Holocaust, but survivors believe that the words “never again” may end with a question mark.
Picture being a Jewish teenager in Europe in the early 1940’s, hiding for four years in the basement of Nazi head quarters in Poland, eating nothing but potato peels from the garbage and avoiding the light for fear of detection. Some believe that can happen again.
“The incidents are increasing,” said Jonathon Pierce, 49, the International Spokesperson for the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPI). “We’re talking about swastikas painted on houses and mezuzahs ripped off brothers doors, and these are just the most recent incidents, there are more.”
A study conducted by the Louis D. Brandeis Center and Trinity CollegeTrinity College study showed that over half of Jewsih college students experienced anti-Semitism.
Today brothers of the Fraternity AEPI endure congruent situations of anti-Semitism. With 185 chapters in five different countries (including the United States, Canada, France, Israel, and the United Kingdom) there have been over 1000 incidents of intolerance against Jewish fraternity brothers alone this year, according to the National Office of AEPI. Examples include swastikas sprayed on the brothers’ mailboxes at the University of Oregon.
Pierce, an alumnus of the AEPI Chapter at Vanderbilt University, wants his brothers to be proud of who they are and what they believe in. But he is also worried for their safety.
“We had to hire a security team to work with our brothers to make sure they’re safe in situations,” said Pierce. “It’s happening every day on every campus. Just two days after the anti – Israel vote at UC Davis to divest from companies who do business in Israel, there were swastikas painted on the AEPI house. That’s no coincidence. Every Jew should be concerned.”
According to the AEPI Chapter at Emory University, brothers now look behind their shoulders and are more careful when they’re out at bars since their house was spray painted with swastikas on the Jewish Holiday Yom Kippur.
But they don’t feel like this discrimination is anti-Israel. They feel like it’s anti-Semitic.
A junior, AEPHI sorority sister from New York University, who would not give her name because of fear of anti-Semitic backlash, said students from other universities will come on campus and hurl slurs at Jewish students.
During recruitment, her AEPHI sisters even worried that they were labeled the Jewish sorority during rush, bringing them negative attention. Other sororities swayed freshman girls from joining AEPHI because they were a Jewish sorority.
“I’m still proud to be a Jew and wear my AEPHI letters,” she said. “I do believe there will be another Holocaust. We said never again after the destruction of the second temple, after the Spanish Inquisition, and after the Holocaust. It just repeats itself.”
Allan Hall, 85, a Holocaust survivor from Krakow, Poland, believes that the Jewish people will always be outsiders.
Hall is in constant worry that the next generation will face the tragedy that he endured.
“I personally experienced anti-Semitism on a governmental and institutional basis,” said Hall. “But I’ve also experienced anti-Semitism in the United States in a major and minor way.”
While attending the University of Florida and joining the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPI), Hall experienced perpetual incidents of anti-Semitism similar to today. Whether it was when he felt aghast to have his formal date feel his head for horns and his side for tails or to change his last name to Hall from Horowitz, he always felt like an outsider. But Hall believes without anti-Semitism, the Jewish people wouldn’t be as strong as they are.
“It’s those that hate us that keep us going,” said Hall.
New phone app, CombateHateU aims to help Jewish students fight anti-Semitism.
by Ben Shapiro
A new phone app called CombateHateU was released today to help Jewish college students deal with displays of anti-Semitism on their campuses.
Officials from the Simon Wiesenthal Center along with representatives from the historically Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi gathered this morning at the Museum of Tolerance on 42nd street in Manhattan, New York, to announce the introduction of this new tool to fight anti-Semitism.
“We need to empower people to stand up and take action, reclaim their territory, their rights,” said Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “It will allow people, Jewish, not Jewish, anyone who cares about freedom of speech and quality of intellectual and academic discourse on campus to participate and to be able to make it a safer and more secure place for people.”
In the wake of recent demonstrations of discrimination displayed at Emory University and Ohio University, the leaders of these two Jewish organizations feel the need to stand against anti-Semitism is as strong as ever. They believe the fighting along the Gaza strip has increased hostility towards Jews around the country. Weitzman, a native of Brooklyn, New York, said this issue is prevalent all across the globe.
“This is a problem that is going on internationally, certainly across Europe,” said Weitzman during the press conference. “There was just a case a week or two ago, where Jewish students were barred from a British sporting good store because they looked Jewish.”
CombateHateU is an advanced application based off a previous model released by the Wiesenthal Center that was intended for use by high school students. The new model allows college students to inform members of the Wiesenthal Center when and where illustrations of anti-Semitism are occurring, whether it is physical actions, or derogatory speeches from students and professors. Students can describe the event, or even post videos and audio links of what occurred. The application first reminds students to go through their campus institutions designed to handle social matters, and also insures them of their anonymity when reporting these issues through the application.
“It has the opportunity to give us a description, tell us when something happened, let the student tell us who they contacted,” said Rick Eaton, co-author of “Digital Terrorism and Hate” and one of the main contributors towards the development of the application. “We never would give that information out, but it would give us the opportunity to use the weight of the Wiesenthal Center to contact campus authorities or whoever that we think might be able to help in these incidents, but it is always confidential.”
Eaton, along with the other senior members of the Wiesenthal Center, are glad their idea has come to fruition, although now they want to make sure Jewish students around the country are aware of the new tool they have at their disposal.
“One of the most important things, and we ask the brothers of AEPi that are here, is to share this app, not only with your AEPi brothers but with your Jewish friends on campus that may need to see it,” said Eaton, who works out of the Wiesenthal Center’s Los Angeles headquarters.
One of those AEPi brothers in attendance was Nissan Mirakov, 19, from Fresh Meadows, Queens. Mirakov attends Baruch College in Manhattan, and is vice president of the Hillel House at Baruch. Mirakov is proud of the active population of Jewish students at Baruch, and specifically in his fraternity, but voiced concern for the potential Jewish student who is not surrounded by other Jewish people, or is not affiliated with any Jewish organizations.
“Nationally I think it will help us out a lot,” said Mirakov.
Barely visible behind the tidy, stacked columns of Judaic literature, Yitzhak Israeli leafed through a leather-bound copy of the Talmud, searching for new insights on an ancient text.
Two rows away, Karen Steinberger picked up a paperback she’s been itching to buy: Future Tense by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a prolific, controversial author who’s faced opposition from religious conservatives.
But no matter what literary work either chooses to read at Yeshiva University’s book fair, both will encounter one common theme: the roots of Jewish identity.
The school expects more than 13,000 visitors this month at the Seforim sale—located at 2495 Amsterdam Ave. on the university’s Wilf Campus in Washington Heights—where patrons can select from a wide range of faith-based titles, from Yearning for Shabbat to the cooking guide, Quick and Kosher.
With less than a week before the student-run event ends, Tzvi Feifel, 23, a Yeshiva student and the fair’s chief executive, said his team looks to gross $1 million from its selection of nearly 15,000 works.
“We have all the ancient texts but we also have newer stuff which is borderline controversial,” Feifel said. “There’s always some stuff that’s going to poke people’s sides. But we’re trying to be of service to the community and the community is very broad.”
Some readers like Israeli of Munsey, N.Y. said that, when it comes to the holy books, it’s hard to stick to a budget.
“I have a small pile building in the corner over there,” he said, pointing to a stack so high it threatened to topple over. He later added several more to the growing heap. “Let’s see how big it’s going to get by the end of this visit.”
But the sale also appeals to a younger crowd—those who want to study Judaism in a 21st century context. Clusters of Yeshiva students mingled between the aisles, discussing recent reads or noteworthy authors, including the works by Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, commonly known as “The Rav.” Steinberger, 21, said she’s eager to get her hands on some newer titles and lose herself in the “corpus of literature.”
From the customary to cutting-edge, Feifel said the eclectic variety of merchandise reflects the diversity of the clientele.
“We have people getting the traditional stuff,” he said, referring to the prayer books. “But at the same time they branch out and get the new stuff. The purpose of reading the old stuff is not to read it in of itself. The question is when you read something, how does it affect you, how does it mold you to become a better person.”
Still, Feifel isn’t convinced of all messages in modern writings—and neither is Israeli, who rarely ventured out of the sale’s selection of traditional works.
But despite the generational gap, both considered the book sale one way to reconnect with their religious roots, using faith to inform their day-to-day lives.
“See how much wisdom is folded into these books,” Israeli said, tracing the gold, embossed Hebrew characters stamped on the spine of one tome. “It’s trying to give us a drop from the ocean of the wisdom of the Torah. Religion gives you strength, gives you power, gives you belief, gives you life.”
Walking into Solomon Wagmar’s world is a lot like walking onto a movie set. The dressmakers and cobblers peddling wares along Lee Avenue exude an old world vibe, reinforced by the bearded men ambling down the street in stockings, black overcoats and wide-brimmed hats. Signs hanging in the windows of delis and restaurants clearly spell out the neighborhood’s dress code: “No shorts, no sleeveless.”
Indeed, not a single knee or elbow is revealed on the unusually warm late October afternoon as women in headscarves chat animatedly in Yiddish, pushing their baby strollers around a Klein’s Real Kosher Ice Cream truck unloading on the sidewalk.
For the tourists passing through on Saturdays (Wagmar says they come to see the kolpiks — large fur head-dresses worn by men on the Jewish day of rest), the enormous Hasidic district stretching through southern Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looks like a community frozen in time, immune to the trendy cafes, organic food stores and condos overwhelming the hipster-centric streets north of Division Avenue. For Wagmar, it’s simply the neighborhood he calls home.
“Some people don’t know exactly who we are,” Wagmar said. “They don’t get into our lives and don’t get our point of view or don’t know exactly what’s happening. We are very friendly people and a nice community. We like to live here.”
Wagmar, whose red beard makes him look older than 26, moved to Williamsburg from his childhood home in Monsey, N.Y., seven years ago with his wife Chaya, a schoolteacher. He has a quiet demeanor, but is eager to answer questions, apologizing ahead of time for his grammar. Like most Hasidic families, Wagmar and his wife speak Yiddish at home, using English only when they don’t want their three young children to understand what they’re saying. A student of Jewish law at his synagogue’s college, Wagmar breaks to pray three times a day. He loves Twitter and avoids politics.
“In Monsey, I was scared,” Wagmar said. “When I walked out at 11 o’clock at night, I was scared because it was very quiet. When you see a car passing by with loud music, I was scared about what was going to happen. Here, whenever you walk, you see other Jewish people are in the street. I feel more safe than in other neighborhoods.”
Nestled in the northern part of Brooklyn, one quick stop away from Manhattan on the L train, Williamsburg has become an increasingly popular place to live, drawing a diverse population that continues to grow. Boasting almost 150,000 people, the neighborhood is home to vibrant Polish and Puerto Rican communities and is a hot spot for young people lured in by the artsy glow of the area’s bars and restaurants.
It’s a neighborhood rich in history that’s constantly changing face. The Domino Sugar refinery still looms along the East River, an abandoned relic of Williamsburg’s 19th Century industrial boom. Other factories have since transformed into hip, indie nightclubs fueling the neighborhood’s underground music scene. A shrinking subculture of hipsters still cling to the non-conformist attitudes first introduced to Williamsburg by an influx of artists who set up shop in the 1970s and left just as quickly in the 90s, no longer able to pay rising rents on their trendy brownstones.
Despite the mesh of cultures, the Hasids have managed to maintain a certain level of exclusivity, if only just barely. The Jewish community was one of the first ethnic sects to settle in Williamsburg, arriving in droves from Hungary and Romania following World War II. Today, it is the largest community of its kind in the world and continues to grow, though at a price — literally.
“You notice outside people coming in,” Wagmar said. “Prices are rising, and some people are moving to Manhattan or other places in Brooklyn to try to grab some better prices. It’s getting more expensive here.”
It’s getting more expensive everywhere — especially in Williamsburg. The Hasidic community is not the only group wary of encroaching commercial chains and shiny high-rise condominiums popping up in a neighborhood whose zoning laws once capped buildings at five stories. In 2009, the first Duane Reade to infiltrate Williamsburg opened on Kent Avenue and North Fifth Street, four blocks away from the locally-owned King’s Pharmacy. A CVS is expected to open along Kent Avenue later this year.
The roar of construction pierces the once-quiet sidewalks running through McCarren Park as developers move forward with plans to build a luxury hotel along North 12th Street between Bedford Avenue and Berry Street. Half-finished apartment complexes along the East River give the waterfront a new look that some fear will translate into a more overarching neighborhood makeover.
“The crowd here is going to change,” said Caren Becker, a 28-year-old Williamsburg resident. “All those construction sites that you see everywhere are going to change the picture so much.”
Becker moved to Williamsburg a year ago from Prospect Heights. An architect working in Manhattan, she was attracted to the area’s close proximity to the city. She said she is unsure how much longer she will stay.
“The house where I live, it’s mostly young professionals with high-paid jobs,” Becker said. “It’s no longer just artists with no money. That’s an issue for Williamsburg. People with money can afford to live here and are pushing the other ones away. It’s scary.”
Brian Lentini, a project manager with aptsandlofts.com, a Brooklyn-based real estate firm marketing many of the new high-end condo buildings, said the new developments are aimed at bringing in young families looking to escape Manhattan who no longer want to rent. He expects the new wave of homeowners to increase as more buildings are completed in the near future, despite the lofty $550,000 starting price accompanying most one-bedroom condos.
“A lot of people from Manhattan are coming here because it costs less and there is a cooler neighborhood vibe,” Lentini said. “There is a ton of people coming over. Here, there’s a more laid-back feel. They’re getting a better product.”
Young Jewish families are increasingly moving to new housing developments going up along the Hasidic neighborhood’s eastern edge — an area Wagmar calls “New Williamsburg.” He moved his family there two years ago, no longer able to afford the rising cost of living in his community. He said despite increasing rents, most Hasids are reluctant to move from the area they’ve called home for more than 50 years.
“In all Jewish places and towns, there are very high prices,” Wagmar said. “It should push people out, but the fact is that most people are staying here, which actually makes it more expensive. If people started moving then business owners couldn’t keep prices so high. But because people are staying, prices are staying that way.”
Despite the financial challenges Hasids face in the wake of Williamsburg’s revived housing flux, Wagmar said he is most anxious about living in closer quarters with other Jewish families in his building — an inconvenience he said he didn’t have to worry about before coming to Williamsburg.
“When you live so close to each other, everyone knows what’s going on,” Wagmar said. “It’s a little more uncomfortable than in other neighborhoods where you’re living (your) life and no one knows everything going on behind your doors.”
Still, he said he does not see himself moving, nor does he fear his neighborhood’s values will be compromised by newcomers.
“Normally we are friendly to our neighbors,” Wagmar said. “The children are happy here. It’s a good place for them to grow up. People are moving out and others are moving in. The neighborhood is changing definitely, but the Jewish people are here to stay.”