Ari Ballaban — In Conversation
[Cincinnati Enquirer] Congedo: Jews Feel Homeless in Current Political Climate
In Sunday conversations, Opinion Editor Kevin Aldridge chats with some of Greater Cincinnati’s most intriguing thought leaders and newsmakers to discuss current news events and interesting, little-known facts about them. Today’s featured guest is Jackie Congedo, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the public affairs arm of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati.
The year 2021 will mark the 200th anniversary of the start of the Jewish community here in Cincinnati. While not the largest Jewish community in a U.S. city, Jews here have been integral to the fabric of the Queen City. But political polarization, a rise in antisemitism and hate crimes (20% increase in Ohio between 2017-18) and two deadly shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego have shaken Jews across the country. For the first time on American soil, Jews are on unsteady footing and unsure about what the future holds for them in the United States. As director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Jackie Congedo has been on the front lines of the fight against antisemitism and efforts to build relationships with the broader Cincinnati community. She sat down with me this week to talk about these tense times for Jews,the rise of antisemitism and her former career as a TV reporter with WLWT Channel 5.
Q: It has been a challenging past few years for Jews in Cincinnati and nationally, starting with the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, then the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and San Diego. How would you describe the overall feeling among Jews about the current climate?
A: I think the best word is disoriented. On one hand, studies show when asked how Americans feel about different religious minorities, overwhelmingly, people feel warmest toward Jews. On the other hand, we know that we are experiencing a dramatic uptick in antisemitism. Antisemitism – the most overt, dangerous forms – seemed as though it was really confined to the margins and was in the history books. But we’ve seen in the past year the first and second shootings of American Jews in their houses of worship – the first in Pittsburgh and then six months to the day later in San Diego. When you look at the trajectory of antisemitic violence, we have to pay attention and we have to see this dramatic uptick as something we need to be aware of, alert of and be working to mitigate. American Jews feel a little homeless as it relates to feeling comfortable in our political climate. It feels as if the extremes are emboldened, and as we see this continuing of polarization, the center gets thinner. And it is no secret that throughout history Jews have really thrived in societies where there is a strong center.
Q: How are the extreme ends of the Republican and Democratic parties causing Jews to feel squeezed?
A: There are right-wing and left-wing fringes that aren’t particularly comfortable for the Jewish community. On the right fringe, you have a lot of ideology that isn’t necessarily as welcoming of diverse communities. And Jews certainly fall into the category of what those groups consider a minority. If you ask a white nationalist, they will tell you that Jews aren’t white. On the other side, you have this left camp that sees Jews as white, privileged, and in some cases as it relates to the state of Israel, they make assumptions about any Jew and what their support for Israel or lack thereof might say about who they are. So, we have situations where there are Jewish kids, who were rooted and raised in progressive ideals and the idea of minority rights and the idea of standing up for inclusion, and they head off to school to the more liberal college communities and they are told you’re not welcome with your full identity at this coalition table, whether it’s the women’s rights movement or the movement for black lives. Just the fact that they are Jewish is enough for other groups to say, “You don’t fit our framework for oppression and you’re not welcome here.” And that is something that is certainly a different threat than what we see when white nationalists invade synagogues with weapons and kill people, but I think it is something that we also have to be really concerned about when it has an affect on someone’s willingness or comfort in identifying as a Jew.
Q: A prominent Jewish leader here in Cincinnati told me recently that Jews haven’t felt this much tension since World War II. Do you agree?
A: It’s hard for me to say because I wasn’t around at that time. I think we have to pay special attention to survivors in our community when they draw parallels because they were around. At the same time, we have to be cautious because there are some important differences. And I’m reminded of one of the most important differences when I think back about not just what happened in Pittsburgh, but what happened in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, which was an overwhelming, tremendous show of support for the Jewish community. Inherently other faith and ethnic communities recognized this attack was not just an attack on Jews, it was an attack on our most basic, fundamental values and principles as Americans on religious freedom, on minority rights even. So, what we saw on Sept. 28, 2018 was government officials, nonprofit leaders, clergy, law enforcement really coming to the aid of the Jewish community and saying, “We’re here for you and this is not just an attack on you, it’s an attack on us as well.” That wasn’t happening in World War II Germany. You didn’t see hundreds, thousands of people coming together to hold a vigil after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass when Jewish synagogues and businesses were burned by Nazis. So there are important differences, but at the same time, there is this feeling of disorientation and uncertainty about where we’re headed. But I don’t think we are in 1939.
Q: How can non-Jews identify antisemitism?
A: As is the case with any bigotry or hateful ideology, certainly there is something about an antisemitic remark that sets off the radar of someone who is Jewish just as a racist remark sets off someone who is African-American or a person of color. So while we can talk at great length about what is and what isn’t antisemitism, I think it is really important to keep in mind in this moment, and this is not just for the Jewish community but any community that is the subject of racist or bigoted ideologies or ideas, that we put that group at the center to empower them to identify what that is. I think that is a more useful paradigm. But in the interest of education, antisemitism at its very basis is hatred for Jews. The idea that you don’t like or hate someone or what they are doing solely because they are Jewish; that is the defining point. It has evolved throughout time, but it always bears the same hallmarks of this conspiracy idea that somehow there is some Jewish cabal working behind the scenes in places of power and access to manipulate the world order against, fill in the blank as to who. That’s been used throughout history depending on the political agenda of the person who is employing the antisemitism.
Q: What efforts has the JCRC been involved with to help educate non-Jews in Greater Cincinnati and build relationships?
A: What has been a real light in the darkness in these divisive times that we living in, is all the coalition work that has sprung up. It has been a very intentional effort by players who think that there is power in the collective and in coming together to deal with some of these things, and we’ve been proud to play a role in a number of those. Most recently we were part of the steering committee for the Festival of Faiths, which was a really inclusive, extremely diverse gathering of faith communities. I think 13 world religions and dozens of different organizations affiliated with those religious traditions coming together. The other coalition effort we’ve been involved in is the Cincinnati Regional Coalition Against Hate. We were one of the founding partners of the coalition, which is 19 nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations representing targeted minority groups that came together in the wake of Charlottesville to develop reactive and proactive strategies to combat hate in our community. It has really led to enhanced relationships among communities, and we’ve developed this mechanism to respond quickly if something happens that really puts the victimized group at the center of defining what that response should look like. And along with the coalition, this past April, we lead a full-day summit on antisemitism and hate at the Cincinnati Museum Center where we convened workshops, breakout discussions and keynote speakers on how do we join together to understand the intersections of hatred, how do we be more effective allies for each other and how do we build an inclusive movement to counter it and to strengthen our pluralistic democracy.
Q: How have the recent shootings at Jewish synagogues changed the worship experience for Jews as well as how you live your daily lives?
A: I can’t look at you and honestly say that there is no concern and there is no fear. The issue of security is something that, as a community, we are prioritizing because we have to. The fact these shootings have forced our community to be more security conscious and aware is a sad statement about where we are as a society. It’s sad that in the place we are supposed to feel safe and comfortable in our vulnerability, we have to be on our guard to some degree. At the same time, I think there is very much a feeling that the best way to combat antisemitism is to be proudly Jewish. What we have seen is not a drop in Jewish engagement, but actually a strengthening of Jewish affiliation and of engagement and people saying this isn’t going to keep me from attending services or engaging as a Jew or being publicly Jewish. .
Q: You once enjoyed a successful career in news media, locally here with WLWT Channel 5. What did you love about journalism?
A: I loved the camaraderie in it, the teamwork. I had the opportunity to work with some of the best professionals, photographers, journalists, editors in the industry, right here in Cincinnati. I have nothing but the best things to say about my former colleagues at Channel 5 and the commitment that they have to bringing people the truth, as hard as it is and as lonely as it is sometimes. I love that it is a profession with grit. I love that journalism is an essential function of our democracy. Not that I was important, but that the work was really important. I loved that people knew who they could trust to bring them the truth. Despite what anyone wants to say about fake news or alternate truths, there is no such thing as as an alternate truth. There are alternate narratives that we should consider and we should have empathy and we should be in conversation about, but in terms of actual facts – the sky is blue kind of facts – there are just facts. I was always proud to be a steward of those facts and a messenger of those facts. It was always a great feeling when people would tell me they trusted me to tell their stories.
Q: You say it was a lonely job. Please expound.
A: In today’s environment, the media are blamed for a lot of things, and this is done by all sides of the political spectrum. I really would get frustrated when people would say “the liberal media” or “the conservative media.” I do think there are people out there not doing the kind of job that my colleagues and I did, but I always ask people, “Have you ever met or know any of these people who are doing the work?” Because every person, with very few exceptions, that I’ve ever worked with in local news is committed to one thing and that’s trying to get it right for readers or viewers. And so I say lonely because the lifestyle of news is really hard. You move all over the country for the job, you’re spending in some cases more time with your colleagues than your family when you have to miss holidays and weekends, mornings and evenings, dinner and breakfast. I have a lot of respect for people who continue to do this kind of work even though there is some loneliness to it.
Q: You’re a new mom. How has that changed you?
A: It has infused a whole new level of humanity in me because I can’t see anyone without seeing the child that they are and realizing that that’s somebody’s child, there’s a mom out there. And so in some ways, it makes the work that much more meaningful because I am invested for my child and for her children. It also makes my work more painful sometimes because it is harder to just put blinders on and focus on what needs to be done sometimes because you are very caught up in the realities of how what’s changing in the world is going to impact your child.
Q: What’s an interesting little know fact about you?
A: I love to sing. I directed an A Capella group in college, and I sang in the May Festival chorus for a little while. I also got to sing for Stevie Wonder once. I met him (during a news interview) and we started talking and I said, “Mr. Wonder, I’ve been such a fan of yours and I’ve loved to sing my whole life.” And he said, “Well, sing something for me.” You absolutely don’t say no when Stevie Wonder asks you to sing for him, so I did.
Q: What did you sing?
A: I sang “Like A Star” by Corrine Bailey Rae. And he grooved to me. I felt like I could just die right there and all would be good because Stevie Wonder grooved to me. That was a pretty cool moment.
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