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Utah’s Jewish communities spending more than ever on security amid spike in antisemitism

05/03/2024 10:27:40 AM


Tamarra Kemsley, Salt Lake Tribune

Jewish congregations in Utah are spending more than ever on security amid an increase in antisemitism locally and nationwide after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the resulting retaliation in Gaza.

Rabbi Samuel Spector of Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami said his community has upped its spending on security to roughly $500,000 this year — much of it on hiring off-duty police officers.

Additional investments have included dozens of security cameras and other security upgrades to the facility, including new doorways.

There are signs that these efforts are paying off, Spector said, explaining that his congregation discovered one person complaining online that he or she wanted to vandalize the synagogue but hadn’t found an opportunity due to the tightness of security.

“Unfortunately, this is our new normal now,” Spector said, explaining he had recently visited synagogues in Boise and Montgomery, Alabama, that were making similar investments.

In Salt Lake City, Spector said he has been bombarded by threatening emails, social media posts and phone calls since Oct. 7. In that time, his congregation has faced four bomb threats and, on multiple occasions, people have driven through his synagogue’s parking lot shouting obscenities.

The rise in antisemitism faced by Utah’s synagogues coincides with an uptick across the country.

The Anti-Defamation League reported in January a 361% leap in what the organization calls “antisemitic incidents” — from verbal harassment to physical assault — nationwide between Oct. 7, 2023, and Jan. 7, 2024, when compared to the same period a year before.

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Utah's Jews harbor mixed feelings on Passover's eve as Mideast fighting continues, antisemitism rises

04/21/2024 10:17:27 AM


Tim Vandenack,

Chairs for the Bibas family, hostages in Gaza, at a Passover Seder table on April 11, at Kibbutz Nir Oz in southern Israel. The attack by Hamas on Israel and subsequent spike in antisemitic incidents has left Utah Jews with mixed sentiments as Passover looms. Chairs for the Bibas family, hostages in Gaza, at a Passover Seder table on April 11, at Kibbutz Nir Oz in southern Israel. The attack by Hamas on Israel and subsequent spike in antisemitic incidents has left Utah Jews with mixed sentiments as Passover looms. (Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — As Passover approaches, members of Utah's Jewish community are looking forward with mixed sentiment amid a spike in antisemitic incidents in the state and beyond connected to the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

"It's pretty poignant this year because of the sorrow and the pain people are experiencing in both Israel and Gaza," said Judi Amsel, a member of the leadership team at Congregation Brith Sholem in Ogden.

Passover, which starts Monday, commemorates the liberation of Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, a joyous and momentous occasion. Yet, Amsel noted, perhaps around 130 people taken hostage from Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, by members of the terrorist group Hamas are still being held, some of them possibly dead by now. "It weighs very heavily on us all, absolutely," she said.

Alex Shapiro, executive director at the Salt Lake City-based United Jewish Federation of Utah, said he plans to leave an empty seat at his table during traditional Seder dinners next week on the first and second nights of the holiday, which lasts until April 30. The vacant place is to represent the hostages in Gaza.

"This year, (Passover) really takes on extra meaning when we think of what it means to be free," Shapiro said. "How can we really feel free as a people when that is happening?"

The Oct. 7 incursion and attack by Hamas extremists from Gaza into neighboring Israel prompted a fierce series of counterattacks by Israel into Gaza. The hostilities have lingered — pro-Palestine activists and others have accused Israel of carrying out disproportionately aggressive attacks on Gaza. Now, Iran, an enemy of Israel, is involved. The turn of events has cast a shadow on the eve of Passover, one of the most important religious holidays for Jews, but at the same time, members of Utah's community say Passover is about resilience in the face of hostility.

"We've seen a massive spike in antisemitism in the past year, so the story of Passover touches on resilience in the face of antisemitism and the importance of continuing Judaism," said Rabbi Samuel Spector, who leads Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City. He estimates Utah's Jewish community numbers around 15,000.

Indeed, in a report released Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League said it had counted 8,873 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2023, a 140% increase from 3,968 in 2022, and the most ever since the organization started tracking data. Between Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, and the end of the year, the organization tabulated well over half of the incidents for the year, 5,204.

FBI Director Christopher Wray also reported a spike in anti-Jewish hate crime investigations by the agency since Oct. 7, 2023, and said the FBI is on alert for threats against the community as Passover nears, Axios reported Thursday.

Utah hasn't been immune to the trend of rising antisemitism, and Amsel, Shapiro and Spector say they've noticed a jump in such activity in the state since late last year.

"Somebody asked me yesterday how many police reports we've filed since Oct. 7. I lost count," said Spector. His synagogue received four bomb threats in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, he said, and has hired extra security in response to the tense situation.

"It is a really, really tough time to be Jewish in America, Jewish in the world, Jewish anywhere," said Amsel.

Even so, Shapiro said antisemitism is nothing new, calling it "the oldest form of hate in the world." Jewish people are accustomed to fending it off. "This is a fight we've been fighting for a long time," he said.

Still, while it's OK to be unhappy with the aggressive response to Hamas in Gaza of Israeli forces and the leadership of the Israeli government, that displeasure doesn't justify blanket antisemitism, Shapiro said.

The story of Passover and the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, meantime, "gives hope that tomorrow will be better than today," Spector said. "This has been a very difficult past six months and not the world we want to be in. We want to have peace in our world." 

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Local Jewish, Palestinian communities weigh in on Israel-Hamas war 6-month mark

04/08/2024 06:11:21 PM


Chris Arnold, Fox13

Rabbi SpectorCongregation Kol Ami Sign and Flags

SALT LAKE CITY — Sunday marked six months since the surprise attack carried out by Hamas on Israel.

Hamas-led militants killed more than 1,100 people in the Oct. 7 attack. 250 people were also kidnapped, according to the Associated Press.

Currently, 134 people, most of whom are Israelis, are still being held captive.

"The past six months have been very challenging for a lot of people," said Rabbi Sam Spector with Congregation Kol Ami.

In November, Spector made a trip to Israel to see the devastation of the conflict firsthand.

"I talked to a gentleman whose wife and son were murdered in his arms, and he survived but lost his leg," he said.

Spector says they've had to make several security upgrades to his Salt Lake City synagogue. This comes after they received a bomb threat on Oct. 8 and several threatening phone calls and e-mails in the months that followed.

"Couple weeks before Oct. 7, we installed about 20 security cameras and we're going to be installing another 20 on our property," he said. "We also put into place flagpoles in front of our building to prevent people from driving at congregants on the sidewalk. We have had to have police presence nearly daily since Oct. 7."

Spector said they spend a couple thousand dollars a week to have a police presence outside his synagogue. Money raised by the congregation itself is used to fund that.

He also spoke about the impact the war is having, not just on the Jewish community.

"I think it's very challenging and troubling to see the difficult situation of the Palestinian people, and our hearts break for innocent civilians who are caught in the crossfire of this war," he said.

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Salt Lake City Council ends meeting early under disruptions by Gaza ceasefire supporters 

02/23/2024 10:20:57 AM


Josi Hinds, Washington Square Dispatch

In a more than four-hour-long Salt Lake City Council meeting Tuesday night, the Council passed a ceremonial resolution for peace that was later met with criticism from constituents during the general comments portion of the meeting. A group of roughly 60 people demanded the Council pass a ceasefire-specific resolution regarding the conflict in Gaza. A handful of Jewish constituents spoke in support of the peace resolution.

During the opening of Tuesday’s meeting, members of the Council took turns reading from a ceremonial resolution for peace, passed jointly with the administration of Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

“We reaffirm our commitment to remaining in and engaging in conversations to further our commitment to make Salt Lake City safe for everyone,” Councilmember Alejandro Puy said. He thanked stakeholders and those who worked behind the scenes to shape the resolution’s language.

The resolution condemns both anti-Palestinian and anti-Israeli rhetoric, supports Salt Lake City residents advocating for peace, urges federal leaders to work towards peace in the Middle East and emphasizes the city’s responsibility to protect local communities. But later in the meeting, constituents who for the last two months have called on the City Council to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza conflict criticized this resolution as insufficient.

"Thank you for taking the first step in passing the resolution, though it's clear it only meant to appease us,” Ryeleigh Hewlitt said to the Council. "We will be relentless until you do the bare minimum and pass a permanent ceasefire.”

Hewlitt led a chant before leaving the podium, shouting “no justice” with the response “no peace” from members of the audience. Puy reminded attendees to maintain decorum and keep their expressions to themselves.

"To make sure that everybody feels safe and welcome in this room and this space, I would like to emphasize the importance of maintaining a respectful and orderly forum where everyone can participate,” Puy said.

In addition to comments calling for a ceasefire resolution, the Council heard from several Jewish constituents who were happy with the resolution for peace that had already passed.

"Thank you so much for your resolution today because it focuses on the citizens of Salt Lake City,” Rabbi Sam Spector told the Council.

Rabbi Spector acknowledged Israel’s violence towards Palestinians but also said that hearing phrases like “from the river to the sea” or referring to Israel as “is not real” from Palestinian supporters is damaging.

“It seems that advocating for the Palestinians only goes hand in hand with the demonization of Israel.” Rabbi Spector said.

Public comments were often met with applause or snaps from members of the audience, prompting Puy to issue several reminders that expressions of support or disagreement are not allowed.

A commenter named Ron Zamir discussed how some of the rhetoric of people calling for a ceasefire has bred fear among members of the Jewish community. Some of his comments were met by shouts from the audience.

Councilmember Chris Wharton took a moment to state that comments targeting the mayor or members of the Council are not persuasive for him. The Council was then met with shouts calling for a ceasefire or criticizing the Council, and Councilmember Puy called for a short recess.

Eventually, after a series of additional disruptions, Puy adjourned the meeting early, even though multiple registered speakers had yet to make their comments to the Council.

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At Kol Ami Synagogue, it requires an act of courage just to go to services

01/28/2024 07:18:53 AM


Lee Benson, Deseret News

Rabbi Samuel Spector, of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, talks about the conflicts in Ukraine and also Israel during an interview on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024.Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

For most of us, the war in Israel is a dull ache, a reminder whenever one happens to glance at the news that after all these years hatred is still thriving in the Middle East.

But here, at the Kol Ami Synagogue in the Salt Lake foothills, it’s more than that, much more. As sundown approaches on a recent Friday afternoon, signaling the start of the Jewish Sabbath, a police car, manned by an off-duty cop, is parked at the entrance, its blue and red lights flashing — the standard greeting now for congregants as they arrive for evening services. They pass through recently upgraded motion-detecting floodlights and then wait to be buzzed in at the front door.

Security is always an expense at the synagogue, as it is at virtually all Jewish places of worship, but Rabbi Samuel Spector says since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Kol Ami has been compelled to spend thousands more on safety measures.

The answer to ending the madness, to seeing the police car turn off its lights and drive away?

“Stop hating Jews,” is the rabbi’s short answer. “Let the people live and live in peace.”

The rabbi is no militant, no warmonger. He’s long been a proponent of the moderate idea of carving out a portion of Israel and giving it to the Palestinian people for their home. As he sees it, if there’s anything good to say about the current situation, it’s that it could pave the way for the two-state solution to finally become a reality.

“I actually have more hope for two-state than I did before Oct. 7,” he says. “I feel like (before the war) there were people on the extreme right who said all this should be ours and people on the extreme left who said why can’t we all just get along and create one country. Now, I think both extremes have realized that’s not going to be the case.”

He continues, “The far right had always said, ‘Vote for us if you want safety and security,’ and now we’ve seen the biggest collapse of security in Israel’s history and largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, so I think this has revived the opportunity for more moderate leadership in Israel. I don’t think Israel will tolerate any more Gaza being led by Hamas, so hopefully there will be people who take over in Gaza who will feel the international pressure for a two-state solution.”

Meanwhile, he sees no other course than to continue to battle an enemy whose pronounced goal is the extermination of Jews.

“The Hamas charter openly states it is committed to genocide of the Jewish people,” he says. “They’ve said Oct. 7 is just a preview, that they’re going to do this a thousand more times. If Israel laid down their weapons, there’d be a second Holocaust.”

Rabbi Spector was in Israel twice last year, in August, about a month before the Hamas attack, on a congregant synagogue trip, and again in November, about a month after the fighting began, as part of a fellowship of young American rabbis. The trip had been scheduled long before the war, and he could have stayed safe at home, as some rabbis elected to do. But Rabbi Spector decided to go. “The point of our trip was to strengthen ties and show the Israelis they’re not alone, so our trip seemed more important than ever,” he says.

The atmosphere he felt between the two visits was night and day.

In the August visit, “It was in the midst of the judicial reform debate and I’d never seen a country more divided,” he says, “and in November, I’d never seen a country more united.

“It felt a lot like the United States on Sept. 12, 2001,” he continues. “People were heartbroken and at the same time doing all they could to pull together. I was in a hotel where everybody else was an internal refugee who had been displaced from the southern border. People just showed up at the hotel, shouting in the lobby, ‘I have a washing machine, who needs their clothes washed?’ It didn’t matter if you were religious or secular, a man or a woman, straight, gay, Jewish or Muslim or Christian, everybody had been affected by this war and everybody stepped up to help each other. That was incredibly inspiring.”

All while the threat of war was unrelenting.

“When I checked into my hotel, they told me where the bomb shelter was, and to take my shower in the morning because Hamas usually fires its rockets in the evening,” says the rabbi.

Here at home, he’s seen a similar coming together by his congregation — the largest in Utah at some 1,200 members. Although it’s not universal. “Some have been inspired to come out more,” he says, “and there are some who said they’re too scared to come.”

He reviews the reasons why: “Since Oct. 7, we’ve received four bomb threats, we’ve had protesters outside our building protesting the Israeli government — when we’re not the Israeli government, we’re a synagogue of Jewish Americans — we had a guy who drove through our parking lot screaming oaths at us, we had someone who drove at a bunch of us on the sidewalk, we have received numerous voicemails and emails that are threatening in nature.”

And so life goes on. At the Kol Ami Synagogue, situated on a beautiful plot of land overlooking the lights of Salt Lake City, surrounded by peaceful east side neighborhoods, in the land of the free and the brave, the cold hard truth is that it requires an act of courage just to go to a service.

“It’s something we’ve dealt with our entire history,” Rabbi Spector sighs. “It’s sad, but there hasn’t been a time when we haven’t been hated, when we haven’t had people trying to kill us.”

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Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784