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Orthodox Jews aren’t safe in New York We walk around the city with targets on our backs

An Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn (Platt/Getty Images)


November 15, 2023   5 mins

The other day, my husband took my middle son, who is almost five, to a Whole Foods near our home in New York. When he came back, he told me he’d felt uneasy there. Usually, strangers smile at my son while he’s skipping down the aisles; that day, they shot angry, wary glances his way. Could it be, my husband wondered, because our son was wearing a kippah?

Two months ago, I would have dismissed this as mere paranoia. To be a visibly Jewish is to live with a constant, low-grade fear that people are judging you, but more often than not, in my experience, that fear turned out to be unfounded. But these days, I believe any Jew who says they feel scared.

In recent weeks, thousands of people have marched through the streets of New York City chanting “from the river to the sea”; posters of those kidnapped in Israel — including babies and the elderly — have been torn down from city lampposts. At a university in downtown Manhattan, pro-Palestine demonstrators beat on the locked doors of a library where Jewish students were holed up. Over the past few days, stickers have appeared on mailboxes in my neighbourhood that read: “Resist the occupation by any means necessary.” What is meant by this, I can only surmise, is that killing children like mine is justified.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen our places of employment and our alma maters issue mealymouthed statements about the October 7 attacks. A friend of mine runs a small business that often donates proceeds to local causes such as food banks — causes that, despite having nothing to do with the conflict in Israel and Palestine, have felt it necessary to state their allegiance on social media. (No prizes for guessing where that allegiance lies.) “I don’t know what’s more painful,” she told me. “Being sad about the actual attacks, or seeing everyone you thought cared about you just disappear.”

We are on our own, we say repeatedly. The feeling is familiar. “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that God grew attached to you and chose you — indeed, you are the smallest of peoples,” it says in Deuteronomy. Our vulnerability is part of the package; it has, so far, failed to diminish our indefatigability. “All things are mortal but the Jew,” Mark Twain wrote in his 1899 essay “Concerning the Jews”: “all other forces pass, but he remains.” In these last weeks, Jews have rallied to help one another, cooking meals for families with a parent serving in the Israeli army, bussing visitors to those sitting shiva for victims of the October 7 attacks, sending truckloads of supplies.

My family and I are part of a Modern Orthodox community, which is dedicated to the principle of Torah Umadda, which combines the best of both secular knowledge and Jewish practice. A synonymous label, “social Orthodoxy”, has been proposed, because Modern Orthodox Jews have high levels of civic engagement: while we largely keep kosher and shabbat, we also usually attend university, excel in professional fields, and have more diverse social circles than our brethren in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world. Trying to walk the razor’s edge between tradition and modernity, as a neighbour once put it, is challenging under normal circumstances. But lately it’s become a nightmare. “The way things are now, I would never send my children to college,” the mother of one of my eldest son’s best friends — herself a graduate of a prestigious secular university — whispered to me while our children played in the yard at synagogue.

Not that this would necessarily make them safe. Our Jewishness is on display, obvious from the clothing we wear and the languages we speak; we gather together frequently in synagogues, send our children to Jewish schools, and often live in clusters. If someone wanted to hurt Jews, they’d aim for maximum impact, and target one of these places. Multiple times a week, while shopping or praying or even just ordering something to be delivered (a mezuzah on my door means anyone can tell that Jews live here), I think to myself: “We’re sitting ducks.” Perhaps I sound paranoid, but these things of course do happen.

This feeling of being at risk isn’t entirely new. It’s been three years since we moved to our fairly Orthodox neighbourhood, and this is not the first time the police have been stationed outside my children’s school since then. They appeared in early 2021, for instance, around the time that a local man was arrested for throwing bricks through the windows of synagogues in the dead of night. But this feels bigger, scarier, more isolating. A kosher restauranteur wonders if he needs to hire formal security for his tiny cafe; a friend who describes herself as a “lifelong anti-gun person” has decided to apply for a permit. I was recently thinking about taking my sons for a day out in the city, but then caught myself: what if someone sees their kippot? What if someone says something to them, or God forbid, worse?

Walking down the street recently in a different area of New York City, my infant son in tow, I watched as two well-dressed 20-somethings ripped the posters of the kidnapped off a building’s scaffolding, and I shrunk into myself. A black man stood next to me with his young family. “What are they doing?” he said, enraged. “They don’t have a right to do that!” I said nothing to him, afraid of calling any attention to myself and my baby, and I’ve regretted it every day since. Maybe it’s safer to stay home.

I don’t know how to talk to my sons about this. I was born a non-Jew into a non-Jewish family. I knew only a handful of Jews growing up in the WASP strongholds of suburban Connecticut, and they seemed exactly like me, only with bar mitzvahs: what hardships could they really face? Some of my Jewish friends speak of being harangued by grandparents, throughout their childhoods, to remember that antisemitism lurks around every corner, but until my conversion eight years ago, I had no idea what it was like to live as a member of a visible, hated minority. Even now, I worry that I carry less of the burden than other Jews: for professional reasons, I go by my maiden name, which isn’t identifiably Jewish.

It wasn’t even my conversion that woke me up. Back then, I was living in a fun bubble of quirky Orthodoxy in Brooklyn: attending kosher supper clubs, women-only dance parties and Torah-infused yoga classes. I could be Jewish and modern. Instead, my realisation was like a slow-burn horror film: when we moved to London, we attended a synagogue that checked passports upon entry; after we moved back to Brooklyn, swastikas were chalked onto my neighbours’ doors one night. One day, my son’s Jewish preschool director showed me the new door camera they had installed after a shooting at a kosher grocery store in nearby Jersey City. A few years back, so many Orthodox Jews were being randomly beaten up on the street in New York City that a march was organised across the Brooklyn Bridge. None of my non-Jewish friends offered to join us in solidarity.

Some Jews, it seems, are easier to defend than others. On a few occasions, when the war has come up with my non-Jewish friends, they will lament that a liberal Jewish person has, say, been called a name online because she called for peace. I love my fellow Jews and believe we should strive for unity, and I too desperately want peace in the region. But I can’t help but feel that many people seem eager to deflect attention from the Jews actually harmed — “bad” Jews, because they live in Israel or support Zionism — and towards the less material pain of “good” Jews whose views are more politically palatable in America. I respect the rights of Jews, and of people more broadly, to have different opinions. But in moments of rising antisemitism, and this is most definitely one of them, it is not the secularised Jew who is at real risk — but the observant one.


Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia. Her new book on religious conversion will be out in spring 2025.


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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

What a terrible way to live. Just when you think we have left this stuff behind, racism rears its ugly head again.

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
7 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It’s the one form of racism that’s tolerated, because Jews are successful and regarded as white.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
7 months ago

In the 1970s Thomas Sowell was asked what the jews needed to do to eacape anti-semiticsm. His one word answer: fail.

David McKee
David McKee
7 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

Sowell was wrong. The Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire were as poor as church mice. It did not save them from the Black Hundreds. Antisemitism is a very complex thing, and a subject that I don’t think UnHerd has really tackled. Sadly, it is now very topical.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
7 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

Sowell is dead right. Antisemitism comes either from various anticapitalist factions of the right, or more recently from a left that sympathizes only with thugs and losers.

Last edited 7 months ago by Alan Gore
Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
7 months ago
Reply to  Alan Gore

No still very much with us. Just written The fallacies of Social Justice.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
7 months ago

Even having read John Updike’s late novel, I’ve been rarely under the impression that Islamism is a significant force in the US of A.
What you have instead is a disastrous generation of students and erstwhile social sciences activists who make up a veritable New World Red Army.
Let’s hope they don’t emulate Pol Pot too…

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
7 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

What I have noticed in the UK is media coverage pointing to muslims/Islamism as the main problem. Doubtless there are problems in parts of these communities, but watching the marches there are large numbers of white people attending, many of them young and spewing hatred. That is our cultural failure since our institutions, parenting, society gave rise to this. Where does the acculturation start, and where does it lead us? Neil Howe of 4th turning fame was asked when this current 4th turning will end. Approximately 2032, with worse to come as we journey there and things reach a climax. The interviewer said “so x more years of hell and then we’re ok”. To which Howe responded “well it depends which side wins. You can never pre-determine what kind of settlement you will get on the other side”.
So yes, I hope they don’t emulate Pol Pot too ….

Last edited 7 months ago by Susan Grabston
MJ Reid
MJ Reid
6 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

Except the BBC serm to think Jews are the problem. I watched the BBC News channel 15 minutes ago. The reporter was haranguing the Israel Foreign Minister because 11,000 people in Gaza have been killed, far more than the number of Isreaelis killed by Hamas! When he tried to explain why, she shut him down. And everytine he said something, she basically told him he was stuck in the past and should grow a pair.. With this biased reporting, there is little wonder that young people think Hamas are right and the Jewish people are the problem. Terrorism should never be allowed to win, snd the world needs to remembee Hamas broke the ceasefire and caused this.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
7 months ago

My father left Germany in the 30s to flee antisemitism. I left England because of the antisemitism I endured growing up in suburban London during the 70s and 80s. Some of my children toy with the option of leaving Israel for a supposedly easier life of ethnic obscurity in the West. And so the cycle continues. I was going to say something about Israel being the one place in the World where Jewish soldiers will thwart the antisemitic murderers when they come for you, but that doesn’t really stand up to criticism recently.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
7 months ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

That’s interesting. I grew up in suburban London during the 50s and 60s, and encountered no antisemitism that I remember. Mind you, my family was culturally rather than religiously Jewish – heavily Zionist (my father fought in Israel when he was demobbed from the British army), but apart from getting days off from school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there was little religion involved other than family barmitzvahs and weddings. And most of my parents’ friends were Jewish, anyway; there were quite a few Jewish pupils at my schools – so it was easy to live inside a bubble. But even so, I don’t think that antisemitism was that common – and throughout that time, Israel tended to be regarded by non-Jews as ‘plucky little Israel’. That all began to change in the late 60s (I suspect that the 6-Day War and then the Yom Kippur War had a lot to do with it), and I can well believe that you experienced antisemitism growing up after that.

Last edited 7 months ago by Sue Sims
Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
7 months ago
Reply to  Sue Sims

Sue, from what you write I guess that you grew up in NW London. I grew up in Sutton in South London, where I was the only identifiable Jew in my school. I grew up with a very distinct feeling of differentness on account of my Jewishness and experienced British society as being deeply xenophobic – not just antisemitic, but also anti everyone who was black, brown or just plain foreign. It started early on in primary school with what would now be called micro-aggressions, and continued in high school where it escalated to insults, boycotting (is that the right word?) and physical violence. In my teens I also discovered Zionism and by my late teens I was already certain that Britain was not going to be adult home.

Jonathon
Jonathon
7 months ago

I can’t feel anything but horror when I read what our Jewish friends and fellow citizens are going through. I’m sorry, I honestly think society has failed you and your children.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
7 months ago

Buy a gun. Learn to use it. Carry it at all times. Wear a bulletproof vest. Practice self-defense. Be ready to fight!

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
7 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

A good idea for Americans, but what about the larger British readership here? I’m not sure if self-defense is still illegal in Britain, but societal camouflage is probably the Jews’ main option there.

Emre S
Emre S
7 months ago
Reply to  Alan Gore

Not only the Jews. Statistical likelihood is the main thing that protects the bulk of the law abiding British people I often feel.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
6 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Preach violence and violence will find you. Why do Americans think gun ownership is the answer to everything? Society should be taking a stand and saying enough violence. Doesnt matter our faith or lack of it, or the colour of our skin, we only get one life and we should all be defending our right to live our best lives. There is only one race and that is the human race. You might think that naive, but it is more complex that buying a gun and deciding to use it.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
7 months ago

“Over the past few days, stickers have appeared on mailboxes in my neighbourhood that read: “Resist the occupation by any means necessary.” What is meant by this, I can only surmise, is that killing children like mine is justified.”
Moreover, the underlying reasoning is completely topsy-turvy. No Israeli soldiers were present in Gaza until after the 7th October pogrom.

Frances Killian
Frances Killian
7 months ago

We (non- Jewish/non – Muslim) have to choose a side. I choose the Jewish /Israeli side. Neither side is without fault in a whole world of ways BUT if I ask the question, “Would I prefer to live in a world controlled by Jews or by Muslims,?” the answer is clear. Israel is a successful forward looking society which enjoys economic prosperity and sadly, to me, Islamic societies represent backward looking medieval views and prosperity only founded in the lottery of natural resources.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
7 months ago

Keep calm and vote for Trump

David Gardner
David Gardner
3 months ago

Yes, and get a President whose first act will be to betray the Ukrainians. He has form in this, he shafted the Syrian Kurds who had valiantly fought against Isis.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
7 months ago

What a sad and depressing state of affairs, and while some who liberated the death camps or survived them are still among the living. I cannot imagine how ashamed they must be of their countrymen who willfully justify hatred and violence. I cannot help but think that we have failed to honor the lessons and sacrifices of those who came before us. They were better men, made of sterner stuff, and forged in hard times and war. We who live today have proved unworthy of the sacrifices made for us and the better world they left us.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
7 months ago

I am basically an atheist and I disagree with the concept of religion, including godless ones like Woke.
Know this, however, I stand with you in “spirit” and here in the United States, with my fellow citizens who are Jewish, in person. While I also worry about innocent people in Gaza and I find the larger politics complex and multifaceted… There is no question when it comes down to it. I will not stand idly by or tolerate the persecution of or any violence directed towards my neighbor and friends, on the basis of their being Jewish.
I have to believe, at least in the civilized world, there are many many like me. Maybe they are being quiet, but they are there. – Never Again!

Last edited 7 months ago by Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

Are pictures of kidnapped Trans people being torn down by your local college professor. Are Feminists showing support for the killing of Trans people. Are neighbors of Trans people calling for them to be driven from the East River to the Sea/ Hudson. Are Harvard students writing open letters (anonymously like cowards) telling Trans people that the butchering of their fellow Trans people is entirely their fault… Of course Trans people have certainly faced violence through the years though on a more individuated basis and there is certainly a context of highly charged political/ cultural unrest around the subject but you cannot compare the two and I promise you if some barbarian group massacred Trans people there would be plenty of commentators here to show support for our neighbors and fellow citizens who were Trans… Count on it.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
7 months ago

To the author: If you have not read the text of Leo Strauss’ 1962 lecture, “Why Remain a Jew,” I would recommend it to you. To anyone, for that matter. It is especially riveting just now.

Aidan A
Aidan A
7 months ago

Would this board have the same comments if a trans person wrote.

“I went to the store today. Absolutely nothing bad happened, but I still feel unsafe. Trans people are in danger everywhere. Feminists marched against our rights. There is a comment board on Unherd where people leave disparaging messages. Trans people in New York are not safe, etc.”

Last edited 7 months ago by Aidan A
Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
7 months ago
Reply to  Aidan A

Are pictures of kidnapped Trans people being torn down by your local college professor. Are Feminists showing support for the killing of Trans people. Are neighbors of Trans people calling for them to be driven from the East River to the Sea/ Hudson. Are Harvard students writing open letters (anonymously like cowards) telling Trans people that the butchering of their fellow Trans people is entirely their fault… Of course Trans people have certainly faced violence through the years though on a more individuated basis and there is certainly a context of highly charged political/ cultural unrest around the subject but you cannot compare the two and I promise you if some barbarian group massacred Trans people there would be plenty of commentators here to show support for our neighbors and fellow citizens who were Trans… Count on it.

starkbreath
starkbreath
7 months ago
Reply to  Aidan A

Trans activists claim that words are violence while advocating actual violence against and wanting the law to prosecute anyone who doesn’t support their delusion that they’re not the sex that they were born as. Claiming some kind of moral equivalence with the Israelis murdered, raped and kidnapped on October 7th is just further evidence of their odious narcissism.

A D Kent
A D Kent
7 months ago

It truly is horrible that it has come to this and any acts of agression should be punished to the full extent of the law. You are not responsible for the acts of the Israeli government, even if your sending of support for the IDF suggests you’re at least partially on board with their reaction. This isn’t a thing that Jews are uniquely at risk of though – anyone who was alive after the 9/11 or 7/7 outrages surely can understand this.

Gorka Sillero
Gorka Sillero
7 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

The false equivalence here is distasteful

A D Kent
A D Kent
7 months ago
Reply to  Gorka Sillero

You do know there were numerous instances of Sikhs being attacked physically and verbally in the wake of both 9/11 and 7/7 don’t you?

Dorrido Dorrido
Dorrido Dorrido
7 months ago

Not a word about the Israeli government murdering civilians in Gaza and settler militants on the rampage in the occupied West Bank? Don’t you think this has something to do with it? Children in Gaza are being murdered at the rate of one every 10 minutes, the horror is unspeakable

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
7 months ago

Yes, we need to hear more how Hamas hides behind its own children and babies as it carries out its hedonistic slaughter of Israeli civilians. The Washington Post removed a cartoon aptly depicting this very thing.

Oliver Wright
Oliver Wright
7 months ago

The inherited belief in being God’s chosen people is is surely a big part of the problem.

David McKee
David McKee
7 months ago
Reply to  Oliver Wright

You mean the Jews are arrogant? Not in my experience, in any shape or form (and I live just north of London in a town which has a lot of Jews).
What’s unusual about me is that I know quite a few Jews. This is rare, as Jews seem to prefer to keep themselves to themselves. I am starting think that this is a strategic error. Yes, it helps to preserve their culture, but at the cost of leaving them bereft of allies when they need them. Like now…

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
7 months ago
Reply to  Oliver Wright

Only because you have left it as an antisemitic trope, and never bothered to stop and find out what that means.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
7 months ago
Reply to  Oliver Wright

I think the original idea was more like “volunteered, against their will, by accident of birth” than “chosen”. They were “volunteered” to carry the burden of worshipping the God of Abraham; keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, struggling to understand the Covenant that Abraham made with God. The God of Abraham is a difficult character who has not made life easy for those He chose.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  Oliver Wright

Yes, of course, the Jews are to blame for those who oppress them.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago

Ethnic minority feels as if they don’t fit in with the majority. It’s been happening since the dawn of time, to all colours and creeds

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

A lot of people try the old “just because I’m critical of Israel doesn’t mean I’m antisemitic” line. And then they make a comment like that.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I’m merely trying to point out the inconsistencies in peoples opinions.
Muslims should assimilate to the general population, stop wandering the streets dressed as a postbox and living parallel lives (a position I generally agree with).
Jews should be free to live in their own enclaves wearing little hats and curly sideburns and the general population should respect their culture.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

True but sad. However, you oppose the solution – that Jews should have their own state where they can be a majority.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

I’ve never said Israel shouldn’t exist. My opinion on the place is that the Palestinians should also have their own state. If Israel isn’t going to grant them that and claim the whole area as Israeli land then those who live in Gaza and the West Bank should be free to participate in elections to the Knesset.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I am totally with you on annexation of Area-C to Israel, as are a lot of Israelis. The rest of the world, including the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian residents of Area-C (violently) disagree. Only 5% of the Arab residents of East Jerusalem have taken Israeli citizenship. This is why I advocate for disbanding UNWRA and settling the refugee issue once and for all. The grandchildren of the 1948 refugees should be given the option of resettlement by the UNHCR like all other refugees around the world, and those who stay should be offered citizenship. The thing is, that I don’t see this being accepted by anyone or working.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

So you want to ethnically cleanse the area, and remove those whose views don’t align with yours? Now we’re getting to the crux of the issue, and if views such as yours are as common as you claim then that’s why Palestinians have to resort to violence

Gorka Sillero
Gorka Sillero
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Can’t see the Muslim minority in our country enduring what the 200k Orthodox Jews have to endure. Not remotely close

Of course, you don’t mean they have their own country where they can be majority, do you?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Gorka Sillero

I’d guess after the twin towers came down or the London bombings happened most were quite fearful of the reaction they’d get in public, very similar to this poor lady

Jonathon
Jonathon
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Feeling like you don’t fit in, and feeling scared are two very different things. But of course you knew that. It’s because it’s concerning Jewish people. But you don’t say that. But we know.