Massachusetts Has an Anti-Semitism Problem, and It’s Only Getting Worse

Swastikas, vandalism, and arsons–hate crimes against Boston-area Jews are on the rise. Are we ignoring all the signs of something even worse to come?

Antisemitic attacks in Boston

With his wife, Luna, by his side, Rabbi Avi Bukiet speaks at a community gathering after their Arlington home was targeted by an arsonist. / Photo courtesy of Wicked Local

After a long day, Luna Bukiet was taking advantage of the peace and quiet that had settled over her home at the tail end of a Saturday. Her three young children were finally asleep upstairs and her husband, Avi, was working quietly in his office across the hall. She exhaled and opened a book on the couch in her living room. Moments later, when Luna picked up the faint scent of smoke, she called to her husband. “Avi,” she said, “can you check it out?”

Rabbi Avi, as congregants of Arlington’s Chabad center know him, was busy tapping away at his laptop amid a sea of open theological books. “Nah, it’s fine,” he called back to her. But he rose from his desk anyway and stepped outside the front door to check. Standing on his steps, he detected a whiff of charred wood. Avi looked up to the sky. It was a clear, warm night—the kind of May evening that hovers on the threshold between spring and summer. He smiled, thinking of an overeager neighbor already kicking off barbecue season, and walked back inside, closing the door behind him and retreating to his office. He had a lesson to prepare for Hebrew school the next day.

An hour passed before Luna called to him again. She still smelled smoke, and the odor only seemed to be growing stronger. Luna was halfway up the stairs, on her way to their children on the second floor, when the fire alarm in the hallway began to shriek. Avi jumped up from his desk and scrambled from room to room searching for signs of a fire. When he opened the basement door, he confronted billowing clouds of black smoke and the terrifying realization that his home was ablaze. Luna gathered the children and rushed them outside to safety.

When a fire truck pulled up several minutes later with its sirens blaring, Avi watched in horror as firefighters began using their axes to hack away at the flaming wall of his home, which doubled as his congregation’s synagogue. Only after the side of his house had been reduced to a pile of charred and smoldering shingles did the questions begin. A fireman asked if anyone smoked. Had a grill been going? Were smoldering embers carelessly tossed in the yard? Over and over, the answer was no.

At first, Avi didn’t think the fire at his home was a deliberate attack. He had grown up in the suburbs north of Boston, and even though he has always worn a kippah—the small skull cap that is a symbol of Jewish identity—he rarely felt targeted anywhere in the United States. Now, though, against his every instinct, Avi began to wonder if someone had intentionally tried to harm his family because of their faith.

It wasn’t out of the question. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, hate crimes against many minorities have increased throughout the country. Here in Greater Boston—home to one of the 10 largest Jewish communities in the world—the biggest and most conspicuous jump has been in incidents targeting Jews. The recent wave of anti-Semitism includes neo-Nazi graffiti, attacks on property, and the local mobilization of virulently anti-Semitic white supremacist groups.

The spike in anti-Semitic incidents comes at a confounding time for the Boston-area Jewish community. Less than a lifetime ago, Boston Jews were a marginalized minority. But over the past several decades, institutional discrimination against Jews and societal barriers to inclusion have fallen away. “We thought we were going in one direction,” says Elaine Zecher, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, “and then boom, these people show up.” These people—the ones carrying out anti-Jewish acts of hate—include everyone from schoolchildren to avowed neo-Nazis who openly advocate online for the “extermination” of Jews. Many of them are resorting to increasingly bold means to get their message across, and the most unsettling part is that no one knows how far they are prepared to go.

While investigators puzzled over the burning embers, Avi’s next-door neighbor appeared holding a cell phone. He told Avi he’d spotted something on his home’s security cameras he thought the rabbi needed to see. As the time stamp on the video ticked to 10:12—around the time Luna had first called out to Avi—a figure appeared on the black-and-white screen: a man, wearing a hood, walking out of the Bukiets’ yard.

Antisemitic attacks in Boston

A scene from Coolidge Corner, the beating heart of the local Jewish community. / Photo by Jason Grow

The Monday morning after the fire, Robert Trestan took the elevator up to his corner office overlooking City Hall Plaza. As regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in New England, he’d spent several years tracking the rising rates of hate crimes, advocating for the Jewish community—along with other minority groups—and training law enforcement officials and educators on how to respond to bias and hate. He had just learned of the blaze at the Bukiets’ home and instantly recognized the telltale signs of a hate crime: It was a house of worship, it happened late at night, people were inside, there was no other motive, and no other crime was committed.

Sitting at his desk—surrounded by framed photos of himself with James Comey and Robert Mueller on one side and Pats, Sox, and Bruins paraphernalia on the other—he decided to wait for police confirmation before adding the fire to his organization’s official catalog of hate crimes. That ever-growing file, stored on the ADL’s servers, tells a story of escalating hostility toward Jewish people in the state. Massachusetts alone was home to no fewer than 144 such incidents in 2018 and, according to local law enforcement departments, hate crimes against Jews here rose 131 percent between 2014 and 2017. The primary drivers for this, Trestan knew—and would eagerly tell anyone who would listen—included our deeply divided political climate, in which different groups of people are regularly targeted as being the “other,” as well as the widespread adoption of social media platforms where millions of people who harbor anti-Semitic views are in contact with one another, making it easier for them to become activated.

Making matters more concerning is the fact that the severity of the incidents appears to be escalating. Starting in the fall of 2015, swastikas and anti-Jewish graffiti began to appear etched onto bathroom stalls and in the dirt of playing fields in towns from Newton to Marblehead. A year later, in March 2016, students from Catholic Memorial School in West Roxbury upped the ante, chanting “You killed Jesus” at basketball players from the largely Jewish Newton North High School.

Things only grew more alarming from there as local chapters of white supremacist organizations ramped up their recruitment of young men using anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and began posting fliers, including ones denying the Holocaust, in public spaces and on synagogues throughout New England. Since then, hate-fueled incidents have included property crimes—vandals have damaged the New England Holocaust Memorial downtown, toppled a menorah in Harvard Square, and desecrated a Jewish cemetery in Fall River—as well as more-personal acts of violence. A man accosted two rabbis on the street in Peabody. Vandals ransacked a pot shop in Lynn that is owned by an African-American man who is openly converting to Judaism, tagging it with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti. Then came the arson at the Bukiets’ home.

At the same time, this wave of increasingly bold local incidents has played out against the backdrop of a series of deadly terrorist attacks in other parts of the country. The mass shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and at the Chabad of Poway temple near San Diego left a dozen Jews dead. Although those shootings occurred hundreds and thousands of miles away, the aftershocks have reverberated through the Jewish community in Boston. “Everybody knew it could have been us,” says Jonathan Sarna, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis. As he explains it, anti-Semitic violence, vandalism, and arson can be precursors to something far worse.

In the days following the attack on his house, Avi sat for a seemingly endless string of interviews with reporters, fire department investigators, police officers, and FBI agents, who soon took over the investigation. When he asked if he and his family should leave their home, law enforcement officials said that wouldn’t be necessary. A vandal, they assured him, rarely strikes the same place twice.

It was little comfort. As Avi tossed and turned at night, Luna tried to process what had happened, searching for ways to rationalize the event. “I was thinking, Okay, there are haters in the world. Maybe someone felt the need to do something bad and Googled synagogues,” she says. “In my heart of hearts, I was giving this person the benefit of the doubt.” Avi was also inclined to view the fire as an aberration, something akin to an accident of nature. This was, after all, the Boston suburbs, a place he’d been able to grow up proudly and publicly Jewish without worrying about his identity.

Less than a week later, on the first Thursday night after the fire, Luna was once again settled on the couch reading when she caught a whiff of a familiar scent: smoke. This time, without thinking, she and Avi leapt to action. She hauled the children outside, put them in the car, and got ready to drive them to her in-laws. Avi ran outside and, as he rounded the corner, once again saw the wall of his home on fire. Something inside of him snapped. “He’s done it again! He’s done it again!” Avi yelled. An hour later, less than 20 miles away in Needham, the fire department received an emergency call. Another local synagogue was burning. The arsonist had struck yet again.

The couple panicked. After the first fire, Luna had convinced herself that the arsonist didn’t realize the synagogue also served as a family home. Since then, however, nonstop news coverage had made it clear that it was both a house of worship and a home. “I thought, This person knows there are children here and they’re doing it again,” Luna says. By Friday morning, Avi was making plans to pack up and leave. No matter what assurances police offered, the Bukiets no longer felt safe in their home.

Antisemitic attacks in Boston

A scene from Coolidge Corner, the beating heart of the local Jewish community. / Photo by Jeremy Brooks/Flickr

On a recent Sunday morning, I found myself inside the Butcherie, a kosher grocery store on Harvard Street in Coolidge Corner, not far from where my grandmother grew up. Proprietor Walter Gelerman stood by the meat counter while shoppers looking for kosher brisket, challah, and chicken soup buzzed around him. He has been here for five decades, during which time, he told me, there have been only subtle changes: They still make all the classic Jewish dishes, but also have some modern takes. As if on cue, an older couple approached looking for the gluten-free matzo balls. Gelerman raised his eyebrows at me as if to say, See?

Across the street, the line for bagels at Kupel’s Bakery was out the front door, as it has been on so many weekend mornings over the past 40 years. A little farther down the street, at the Israel Book Shop, a small crowd gathered, waiting for Chaim Dovek—son of Eli and Edie, who founded the store in 1956—to open the doors. At Congregation Kehillath Israel—a century-old temple that towers over a tree-lined stretch of Harvard Street—Gordon Bennett, the synagogue’s president, came in early to help some of his congregants pray.

It didn’t take me long to notice that Coolidge Corner is one of the few Boston-area neighborhoods where hardly anything has changed in a very long time. It is still a quaint village within a sprawling metropolis. And it is also still the beating heart of the local Jewish community.

Even if time appears to have stood still in Coolidge Corner, the city around it has undergone seismic shifts. “People forget,” says Sarna, who is also a professor of American-Jewish history, “Boston was a deeply anti-Semitic city.” Anti-Semitism, in fact, was pervasive from the day Jews began arriving in Boston in significant numbers in the 1840s, and well into the second half of the 20th century. The Brahmin establishment regarded Jews with suspicion. Local neighborhood bullies assaulted Jewish kids while the police turned a blind eye. Hotels posted signs declaring “No Hebrews.” Jewish families had to start their own country clubs, Jewish doctors had to start their own hospitals, and Jewish lawyers had to start their own firms—because they were not welcome in the ones that already existed in this town.

But when things changed, they did so rather quickly. “All of a sudden you woke up and the law firms were—with respect to Jews—integrated,” says Justin Wyner, a former manufacturing industry executive who began his business career in Boston in the 1940s. “The hospitals, which wouldn’t take Jewish doctors, were also integrated. And the banks, too.” The Country Club in Brookline began accepting Jews in the 1970s. By the time Stan Rosenberg became Massachusetts’ first Jewish Senate president in 2015, 20 percent of that body was Jewish.

While these institutional barriers have fallen away, though, area Jews have still experienced an increase in hate crimes against them. This makes their experience unique among minorities around Boston. African-Americans here still face de facto school segregation and structural exclusion from sectors of the city’s economy, as well as anti-black bias and violence. By contrast, Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans have seen both exclusion and bigotry almost completely disappear. Some Jews had come to believe that anti-Semitism, like anti-Irish and anti-Italian bias, had also faded into memory. “Twenty years ago, I would say anti-Semitism isn’t really a factor anymore,” says Nahma Nadich, acting executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Now, Nadich says, “I can no longer say that.”

The Sunday I visited Coolidge Corner—an idyllic weekend morning in a neighborhood trapped in time—the most significant change I noticed was one I couldn’t see: an undercurrent of anxiety—churning beneath the placid surface—that did not exist even a few years ago. Gelerman, walking down the prepared-food aisle at the Butcherie, said he couldn’t recall any moment in Boston Jewish life comparable to today’s. “There have always been incidents—drivers yelling slurs on your way to temple,” he explained. “But not to the degree that it was scary.” Hilary Goldberg, waiting outside the Israel Book Shop, told me she is exceptionally aware of the rise in anti-Semitic incidents. “My children go to school right around the corner,” she said. “I’m worried about their safety.” Bennett, standing before the Torah ark at Kehillath Israel, gestured to the 600 empty seats arrayed before us that would be full, in a week’s time, for the Rosh Hashanah holiday and said, with evident anguish, “I feel responsible for all these people.”

In late August, just before the academic year began, Rebecca—a senior at Brandeis who asked me to withhold her last name—received an email from the university’s public safety director. The cryptic message said that photos of students had appeared on a white supremacist website. Rebecca visited the site and found a long thread on a forum where people she assumed were “neo-Nazis” were sharing photos of Jews, trading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and publishing hate-filled missives such as “[Jews] truly are creatures of Satan hell-bent on destroying the White race.” As horrified as she was, Rebecca nearly cried out in shock when she came upon a photo of her best friend and then, just beneath it, a photo of herself.

The purpose of the thread, it appears, was to ridicule Jews. While Brandeis security officials have said the forum represents no direct threat, “I kind of feel like there is one,” Rebecca asserts, especially in light of the attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway. Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, a civil rights organization, and an expert on hate groups, says it’s reasonable to be alarmed by a thread featuring photos and names of specific Jews. After all, he says, “Lists set the stage for targeting.”

It is also reasonable to be concerned about possible real-world consequences stemming from online posts, considering that most modern-day attacks on Jews and other minorities have online roots. The Pittsburgh shooter, for instance, had been radicalized by white nationalist rhetoric on Gab, a social media platform that functions like Twitter and is popular on the far right. The Christchurch shooter, who murdered 51 Muslims in New Zealand (and helped inspire the shooter in Pittsburgh), was an active member of 8chan, an online forum where members cheer on mass shooters. Conor Climo—arrested by the FBI in August and now facing trial for allegedly plotting to attack a Las Vegas synagogue, an ADL office, and a gay bar—had joined a neo-Nazi terrorist group online. These Web communities have enabled white supremacist ideology to spread more widely than it ever has before. “In their worldview,” Ward says, “Jews are the puppet master pulling the strings of other communities to overthrow white America.”

In Boston, home to more than a quarter million Jews, the online activity has turned into growing white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity on the ground. A local group inspired by the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer has put up posters denying the Holocaust on synagogues and distributed anti-Semitic fliers in towns with large Jewish communities, such as Newton. The local chapter of Patriot Front—an organization with roots in the same neo-Nazi group that helped organize the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville—has taken a more militant turn recently, engaging in hand-to-hand combat training and openly embracing Nazi symbolism (several of its members flashed Nazi salutes during a protest in Copley Square in August). Last February, three Patriot Front Massachusetts members, including the group’s then-leader, were arrested in East Boston wearing facemasks and carrying brass knuckles, a spring-loaded knife, and anti-immigrant fliers. While these groups do not officially advocate violence, they focus their energy on converting other white Americans to their ideology through online and real-world propaganda. Other groups, such as Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi terrorist organization—which counts two people from Massachusetts as some of its earliest members—do embrace violence.

History has shown that it can be a short step from embracing white supremacist conspiracy theories online to deciding violence is the remedy. The Pittsburgh shooter’s last post on Gab, before carrying out his attack, was about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helps refugees resettle in the West. According to the shooter’s deranged worldview, HIAS “likes to bring invaders” to the United States who kill white Anglo Americans. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he wrote. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Could there be a violent extremist within the ranks of white supremacist groups active around Boston? Perhaps. A member of Patriot Front told me about a member from the Worcester area who goes by the alias “Peter.” “He hasn’t said anything about shooting people or blowing things up, but he seems to be teetering on the edge,” the Patriot Front member told me. “He’s been speaking in a very desperate way.” Indeed, in February, according to copies of internal Patriot Front messages I obtained, Peter wrote, “I’m not afraid of anything. I have nothing to lose.” By June, Peter’s rhetoric had become even more extreme. “I’m thinking like a wolf now,” he wrote. “If I am to be destroyed, then so be it.” The Patriot Front member I spoke with has become increasingly alarmed about Peter. “He’s the kind of guy,” the member told me, “that you never know if the next day you’re going to see him in the paper because he shot some people up.”

Antisemitic attacks in Boston

A scene from Coolidge Corner, the beating heart of the local Jewish community. / Photo by Blake Gumprecht/Flicky

This latent sense of danger, of waiting for something terrible to happen, has converted some temples, schools, and other organizations into virtual fortresses. At Brookline’s Temple Sinai last spring, the synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Andrew Vogel, convened a meeting of his congregation to discuss security. Speaking from the pulpit, he opened the conversation on a pressing and contentious issue: whether or not to lock the temple doors, something that runs contrary to the core Jewish value of openness. Two factions quickly emerged. “Some people spoke passionately about their fears,” Vogel says, “and some spoke passionately about maintaining our tradition.” In the end, the congregation settled on a compromise, sacrificing some openness for safety, and forgoing some safety measures for the sake of tradition.

Similar conversations are taking place in synagogues throughout the Boston area, with congregations trying to find the right balance between protecting and welcoming worshipers. Jeremy Yamin, a former special agent who was in charge of security at U.S. embassies and later joined Combined Jewish Philanthropies to expand the organization’s security program, has had a front-row seat to the current debate. When he first arrived here, he embarked on a listening tour at Jewish schools, community centers, and synagogues. What he heard was polite but muted interest in the security consulting services he was freely offering. “Some people thought, Okay, this is interesting, but I’m not sure we really need this,” he says. But ever since the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway and the arsons in Arlington and Needham, his training sessions have been packed, and synagogues are turning to him for the kind of sophisticated security programs he once deployed at American government facilities abroad.

After being attacked so brazenly, the Bukiets also struggled with the conflicting concerns of security and openness. On the Friday morning after the second fire, Avi called his father to discuss plans for moving his family out of their home. Instead of agreeing, though, his father offered bracing advice. “He said, ‘It’s the worst message to leave. Stay and let the community know that you’re going to have services,’” Avi recalls. So he did.

By Saturday morning, Avi was sure he’d made the right choice as his house overflowed with people flocking to Shabbat services to support the Bukiets. “People were spilling into every room on the first floor and outside,” Avi says. He stood in the living room to deliver a sermon to the massive crowd. Before he could finish, though, he broke down in tears. “I was just overwhelmed,” he says, “with gratitude.”

That Monday, the wider community packed into an auditorium in Arlington to support the Bukiets and the Krinskys, the family targeted by the arsonist in Needham. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and atheists turned out. The Arlington town manager and the police chief spoke. The event echoed other rallies that took place after the Pittsburgh shooting, including one on the Common, organized by Combined Jewish Philanthropies, featuring Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Marty Walsh, and Senator Ed Markey.

Avi has chosen to focus on openness and on the ways in which he and other Jews are embraced, not targeted, in Boston. In August, when I sat down with him in his home office, he repeatedly steered the conversation away from the attack and toward the massive Arlington rally and the energetic support of local police, who frequently checked on his home in the weeks after the arsons and who continue to keep a close watch.

In August, the FBI—along with the ADL and the state fire marshal—offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arsonist who is suspected of targeting the Bukiets’ home in Arlington as well as the Krinskys’ home in Needham. Based on the surveillance footage from the Bukiets’ neighbor and other security cameras in Needham, investigators determined that the same person was in the vicinity of each of the three fires. The man is approximately 5-foot-11, thin, white, and so far unidentified.

At the same time, other authorities have redoubled their efforts around Boston to combat anti-Semitism and other hate crimes. Baker has promoted the work of the state’s Hate Crimes Task Force; Walsh has called attention to the rising rates of incidents; and Boston and state police have increased patrols at synagogues.

Meanwhile, inside the Bukiet household, life has more or less returned to normal. In September, the children returned to school, lunchboxes in hand. Every Friday evening, after sunset, the family joins hands in prayer before Shabbat dinner—not 5 feet from the wall that the arsonist twice lit on fire.

This isn’t to say that two attacks on Avi and Luna’s home while their children were upstairs sleeping haven’t taken a toll. Although Avi has managed to sleep normally again, the arsonist still occupies some small part of his mind. Today, as he plans lessons in his office, he has something else at his disposal besides books: a baseball bat, propped in the corner, always within arm’s reach.