Rabbi: Anti-Semitism Has Yet To Appear In Florida Panhandle
Events around the world over the recent past have exacerbated the amount of anti-Semitic activity, much of it going from covert to overt. But one area that appears to be immune to such bias is Northwest Florida.
“It’s been really challenging and hard, and it’s importantly come sort of from both extremes of the political spectrum,” said Rabbi Joel Fleekop, who leads Temple Beth-el in Pensacola. Established in 1876, it is Florida’s oldest Jewish congregation.
“We’ve seen an increase in anti-Semitism from the right in terms of white supremacists and white nationalists,” Fleekop said. “Also from the edge of the left; they’re often tied to anti-Israel feelings as well.”
It’s a difficult time in the community, says Fleekop, with everyone grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges. The increased anti-Semitism, he adds, has been felt acutely since the 2017 riot in Charlottesville and the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Things have been on a low simmer since then. But in the Panhandle, the message of support have been overwhelming.
“That’s not to say that there are occasional statements that are hurtful or ill-conceived – to put it generously,” said the rabbi. “But overall, the local community – both in terms of religious groups and other non-profits and just neighbors — pick up the phone or send an email to voice their support to let us know as a temple, as a Jewish community, they support us [and] we’re in their prayers.”
As mentioned, Temple Beth-el has existed for 145 years. Fleekop believes that people knowing one another over time certainly helps since only about one percent of Pensacola residents are Jewish. Another advantage is the area’s strong interfaith community.
“We have a number of churches that bring their confirmation classes to the temple to experience a Shabbat (Sabbath),” Fleekop said. “And we partner with neighboring congregations downtown for an interfaith Thanksgiving service and other programs like blood drives. And I think all that builds a sense of trust, of understanding.”
While many view the Donald Trump presidency as one of the most anti-Semitic administrations in U.S. history, Fleekop declined to single out any one politician – instead, looking at the big picture of people have become comfortable with being cruel to each other.
“We live in a time when people are very confrontational, are very polarized on a variety of issues; and debate and discourse that’s done respectfully with a goal of understanding one another seems fewer and rarer these days,” said Fleekop. “And I think that general experience that we’re living through, tied to politics and other things has led people to be crueler to one another.”
But Rabbi Joel Fleekop says there are ways to turn down the temperature – starting by working together despite religious, political, and philosophical differences. He pointed to work recently with Habitat for Humanity.
“If you’re out there sweating, hammering in nails it doesn’t matter if the person next to you is Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim – or Baha’i or no faith,” Fleekop said. “It doesn’t matter because you’re working together on something. And that shared experience is helping you see them as a full human being."