A woman was crying when I walked into the cavernous sanctuary of GJC on Wednesday night. Roughly 100 people were gathered in a circle of chairs toward the front of the room; the cream ceiling and warmly brown furniture gave the space a living-room feel. In the center of the gathering, a single candle sat burning on a small round table. The space was still except for the occasional baby squeal or patter of toddler feet at the side of the room; people had brought their children because, as someone on Facebook observed, they need to heal, too.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka came up—whether Jews would be safe because one of the president’s children is an Orthodox convert. The congregants were concerned about the racism and sexism revealed during the campaign, and discussed the stages of grief. They talked of making aliyah, or emigrating to Israel—not as a plausible possibility, but as a back-of-mind option in case things get really bad. And yes, people brought up Nazi Germany.
Unlike Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, the disabled, and women, Jews have not been directly insulted by Donald Trump during this election. Anti-Semites have arguably been empowered by his campaign: Jewish journalists have been consistently threatened and harassed on Twitter since the election got underway, often by people who self-identify as Trump supporters. But the fear seems to be less that Trump will specifically persecute Jews than the sense that America under Trump will become an increasingly hostile space for Jews and other minority groups. Trump doesn’t have to be an anti-Semite to bear responsibility for anti-Semitism.
While exit polls suggest that roughly 25 percent of American Jews voted for Trump—fewer than voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but more than voted for John McCain in 2008—the group as a whole is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. Adam Zeff, the rabbi at GJC, said in an interview that the synagogue’s neighborhood, Mt. Airy, is so left-wing that it’s almost “self-parody.” Most Jews live in cities or stay concentrated in “little enclaves,” as Zeff called them—he pointed out that on the map of the election results, there are tiny blue spots even deep in Trump country. “That’s where Jews live,” he said, along with other minority groups.
This clustering creates a dual challenge for Jewish communities. People at GJC spoke about Trump’s election like they might about a death in the family—with a sense of real and personal loss, and a staggering alienation from their fellow Americans. “It is kind of shattering to people to feel like, wow, there’s such a difference,” said Zeff. “To think that racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and misogyny could be given a pass by so many people makes Jews feel like anti-Semitism could also be given a pass.”
And yet the congregants also spoke about the need for understanding. “The people for whom this is a happy day—we have to think about them, too,” Zeff said during the prayer service. Mt. Airy is about a half hour drive from Bucks County, a swing area in Pennsylvania where nearly half of voters went for Trump this year. But even within such a short distance, it’s difficult to imagine how the liberal Jews of Philadelphia and the Trump supporters one county up would start to know one another or be in community.