Smile Politely

Five thousand years and the beat goes on

In the annals of journalism, I’m pretty sure there’s never been an article like the one published on December 28, 2021, about Germans trying to “humanize” Jews by holding meet-and-greets that introduce townsfolk to local members of Jewish populations.
The headline, “Meet a Jew,” baffled, insulted, and shocked me. I’m Jewish. I try not to get offended, but I admit to knee-jerk reactions when I see this kind of stuff in print.
How does it work? Venues are secured by the local “Meet a Jew” committee. The publicity train leaves the station as meetups are billed as a “radically simple scheme to fight back,” against the latest neo-Nazi groups whose numbers are rising by the day throughout Germany. Townsfolk are invited to meet a Jew at a local venue and bring questions.
My gut reaction was so extreme, I had to e-mail a Jewish friend here in C-U to check my OQ (overreaction quotient).
“What do you think about this?” I said in my email, attaching the link to the “human interest story.”
“Very novel,” he wrote back. “But I always thought we were actual people.”
“Perhaps we could piggyback on this movement,” I responded. “Sell tickets to meet us and make money, thereby furthering even more stereotypes.”
“Can we split the proceeds?” he asked.
“You bet,” I responded, compounding this offensive exchange by including an emoji of a happy face with dollar bills pouring out of its mouth and dollar signs substituting for eyes.
But was I over-reacting? Making light of this outrageous “Meet a Jew” scheme? Not exactly.
Champaign-Urbana has experienced no shortage of antisemitism, Linda Bauer, director of the C-U Jewish Federation (CUJF) office reports. She describes a recent incident on the University of Illinois campus when a student — awakened by disturbing sounds at 1 a.m. — discovered that his balcony was covered with the vestiges of more than a dozen smashed eggs that had been lobbed at the apartment.
Forced to clean up the mess, the student called the police, but thus far, perpetrators haven’t been identified. How did the egg throwers know that the apartment housed Jewish students? By the Israeli flag hanging from the railing. Balconies featuring flags of other nations remained egg free.
While Champaign-Urbana incidents don’t come close to those being perpetrated further north — the Jewish man assaulted on January 30th, swastikas spray-painted on a synagogue and a Jewish high school on the same day in a Chicago suburb — I am left to mull the potential for escalation here, especially once the weather warms up. That said, we are not hapless victims.
Bauer says that CUJF intends to fight back.
At noon on Wednesday, February 23rd, the Illinois Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest Regional Director David Goldenberg will discuss “the threat of extremism and current state of hate and antisemitism in Illinois and America” during an online dialogue. Anyone interested in the topic can register. It’s likely to be one of the more fascinating presentations the agency has hosted to date.
Has there been an upside to all this tumult? On January 7, 2022, U of I Chassidic Orthodox Jewish Chabad Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel reported on the growing “allure” of the faith’s campus headquarters. In fact, the growing number of Chabads opening or being re-opened on college campuses are setting new records around the country.
Tiechtel says that numbers of Illini Chabad regulars have grown exponentially. “In August 2003 we had 14 people around the table, including me, my wife and baby; we now average about 150 a week for Shabbat dinner.”
Kids are coming for more than kosher fare, we suspect, and this growing interest has led to an uptick in funding that allowed the Illini Chabad to relocate to an expansive new, 27,000-square-foot facility on campus supported by a $903,000 annual operating budget.
Best of all, adds the rabbi, “We don’t check you at the door—we check if you’re COVID-free and vaccinated, but we don’t check what kind of Jew you are or who you are.”
With organizations like the Illini Chabad and the local JUF at the forefront, there is power in numbers and a collective energy focused on the current wave of antisemitism, thus the future appears to be in the hands of some dogged Jews who, once again, are acknowledging this frightening trend and doing something about it.
As part of our thriving community, I would like to say that while we won’t be hosting “Meet a Jew” get-togethers any time soon, you can look for us everywhere else in town. We hang out at some of the places you recognize: Dollar Tree. Aldi. Schnuck’s. Pekara.
Those of us who have become leery of wearing outward signs of our Jewishness hope to be able to fly our own metaphorical Israeli flags down the road sooner rather than later. Some of us are even celebrating the rise of egg prices at the supermarket these days.

Author or co-author of 17 books, consumer and trade articles plus online content, Champaign, Illinois resident Gail Cohen uses her degrees in anthropology to shape her fiction and nonfiction writings. Cohen authored weekly columns and features for The Daily Herald (Chicago suburbs) and taught writing at Harper College and National-Louis University for 20 years. Named one of 16 top content writers for Demand Studios (3,000+ articles), she continues to churn out content for and recently received a Textbroker certificate for writing more than 1 million words. She has a slew of children, one cat and no regrets.

Top image from the Illini Chabad Facebook page.

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