How Can We Feel Safe?

By: Phillip Nagler  |  February 6, 2020

By Phillip Nagler, Opinion Editor

In my first year of college, I attended a school in the East Village. One night, at around 8 or 9 p.m., I was walking the couple of blocks back to my dorm from the library. A car driving by slowed down near me, the window rolled open, and the man driving yelled out, “You Jews are trying to take my freedom away in this country!” The man continued to yell some nonsensical antisemitic phrases at me that I can’t recall because I was so enraptured in fear.

“Are you going to answer me?” He screamed aggressively.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I replied firmly, but without too much retaliation. 

The man drove away. I was safe, at least for that day.

Wearing a yarmulke in New York City tends to evoke responses from strangers. Sometimes these responses will be the harmless “Shabbat Shalom” or “Boker Tov,” but sometimes they will be similar to the incident I just described. I made the decision about a year ago to no longer wear a yarmulke when I’m out in public, because in addition to being sick and tired of these responses, I no longer felt safe wearing it.  

There is no need for me to rehash the recent antisemitic events. Perhaps some of you, like myself, have been more than uneasy, even a bit shaken, when going about your day to day life these past couple of weeks. Antisemitism in New York City, and more broadly throughout the world, is not a new concept to any of us. However, it seems that every time an antisemitic attack (or in this case, a surge of attacks) occurs in our community, our internal fears are reawoken. 

I know that some people will criticize me for my personal choice of deciding to remove my yarmulke in public. Many argue that in difficult times like these, it is most important for us to be proud of our Jewish identities and not be afraid to embrace our Judaism; otherwise, we are giving in to the fear that these hateful people incite. I agree with this sentiment, at least on a communal level. Demonstrations, like the march against antisemitism across the Brooklyn Bridge a couple of weeks ago, symbolize the resilience and strength of the Jewish people. They show antisemites that their efforts to thwart our Jewish pride prove to be futile.

However, what about the concern for individual safety? It’s a scary time to live in New York City. There has been a 20% increase in reported antisemitic incidents this year. The other day, as I sat down on the subway, I noticed a swastika engraved into the seat next to me. It is normal to be scared. After all, the perpetrators of these crimes are usually mentally deranged individuals, acting unhinged and motivated by the ugliest facets of human instinct. Despite our best efforts to eliminate antisemitism through various forms of activism, these mentally deranged individuals continue to exist, and unfortunately will continue to roam our streets. Taking precautionary action for the purpose of safety, does not detract from the validity of one’s Jewish identity.

What type of precautionary action is appropriate? That is for everyone to figure out on their own. For myself, it was removing my yarmulke in public. For someone else, it might be avoiding the subway late at night. Whatever action you may take to reassure yourself of your safety should be done without a feeling of guilt or sacrifice of one’s Jewish identity. This is a time of great distress for all of us; we all deserve to make ourselves feel safe, even when others may assert that we are compromising on our Jewish identities.