Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is passionate about eradicating racism in Jewish spaces. Several years ago she was in conversations about whether stationing police as security outside synagogues would deter Black Jews.
But for the community rabbi in Atlanta, those considerations are a thing of the past. The questions now are not whether there should be security, but whether they should be armed with automatic rifles and how many officers should be stationed. The primary concern is safety.
“Those conversations right now are really in the rearview mirror. How does this make other people feel? That’s too bad, because we don’t have that luxury right now,” Abusch-Magder said.
Across the country in San Diego, Tazheen Nizam has also been dealing with safety concerns. On October 12, the local Islamic Center was covered in posters depicting Israelis kidnapped by Hamas — a tacit accusation of involvement and blame. As the executive director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), she’s seen how these types of Islamophobic actions, where all Muslims are held accountable for the actions of those half a world away, have heightened the community’s fear.
“People are saying, ‘Hey, if an Islamic Center, which is so visible you could see it off the 805 when you drive down, can be targeted — someplace which is monitored 24 hours a day, by video cameras that are functioning inside — if that place can be targeted, then a single sister wearing a hijab walking down the road can be targeted at any time,” Nizam said.
Antisemitism and Islamophobia are nothing new in the United States, but hateful rhetoric and action has risen following the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel and the country’s subsequent declaration of war on the group. The Israeli Foreign Ministry reported 1,200 people killed in the attack; approximately 240 were kidnapped, and the vast majority remain hostages. In the weeks since, Israel has led an extensive bombing campaign in Gaza that has killed over 11,000 Palestinians, per Gaza’s Health Ministry, and thousands more are missing. Children are at least 40 percent of the death toll. Military airstrikes have also hit the West Bank, the territory governed by the Palestinian Authority.
Stateside, women leaders are navigating security concerns while engaging in political action. They are caretakers of their communities as gender, religion and visibility collide to make no place feel safe.
As the executive director of the Orlando chapter of the Muslim Women’s Organization (MWO), Fatima Sadaf Saied said the group’s primary concern is raising awareness about how what is happening abroad is impacting local Palestinian and Muslim women. The chapter is amplifying work by local Palestinian women and encouraging its members to show their support at political actions and rallies.
“We’re really encouraging our women to be mindful and stick together as much as possible, but still show up whenever they can,” Saied said. She encourages women to carpool and walk in groups for safety reasons. The chapter’s headquarters has served as a place for women to meet up before attending an action as a larger group.
Saied said the chapter has been sharing information about safety with its members through email lists and social media. The group previously hosted self-defense classes from the organization Malikah that specifically focuses on self-defense for Muslim women, giving tips that include how to deal with an attacker attempting to pull off a hijab.
Saied has always been aware that her hijab could make her a target for Islamophobic attacks, but she is even more wary now. Her husband worries, too; he recently cautioned her not to even make eye contact with other drivers when at a red light for fear they will become aggressive. The concern is real, as drivers have yelled at her and made rude gestures before.
About 4 in 10 American Muslim women wear hijabs all or most of the time, according to the Pew Research Center. Abayas, a loose-fitting full-body garment, and niqabs, which cover the face, are other forms of distinctly Muslim clothing for women.
Saied sees differences in the attitudes of her son versus those of her and her daughters. “When you’re a woman, there’s this place of fear of being attacked, right? And I feel like my son does not live in that world,” she said. “For him it’s like, ‘Oh, I want to wear my t-shirt that says ‘free Palestine’ and all of this stuff, because he’s not worried so much about that gendered violence sometimes women have to worry about.”
Orthodox women aren’t always immediately recognizable as Jewish because of their attire, said Daphne Lazar Price, the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Many women do dress more conservatively, but, she said, “you can take an Orthodox woman out of Brooklyn and put her in Milwaukee and you wouldn’t know that she’s an Orthodox woman.” Hair is covered only after marriage, and not universally. Hair can be covered with a tichel head scarf or a wig, which is much less obvious.
The largest security concern for Jewish Orthodox women is physical location, as they tend to live in cloistered communities within walking distance of their synagogue, Lazar Price said. In recent weeks, there has been a heightened police presence in her neighborhood, as well as an increase in volunteer security.
Jewish men are often more easily identifiable than women. “I can pass in certain ways, in a way that I think some of my male colleagues who are wearing a kippah [skullcap] don’t,” Abusch-Magder said.
Orthodox men are more easily identified by their haircuts, which can include payot, or earcurls. Combined with the common Hasidic style of a black suit and hat, they are much more visibly Jewish — and so the women with them are, as well.
It is difficult to balance safety concerns when being identifiable is a job requirement. “Part of my role as a Jewish leader is to be present and visible,” Abusch-Magder said. She wears a large Star of David necklace at all times, but otherwise doesn’t wear any Jewish religious garb. Her Whiteness means she isn’t typically identified as Jewish, and her necklace can rest under her blouse.
Abusch-Magder has always been proud of who she is, but nowadays has been more circumspect. She thinks twice before telling someone ‘shabbat shalom’ in public.
There has been a new boldness when it comes to antisemitism recently, Abusch-Magder said. She recalled a conversation about a friend’s child whose schoolmate said there were “too many” Jews in the world. “Those kids didn’t come up with those ideas this week. However, right now, it’s OK to talk like that,” she said.
“It feels like it’s intractable. It shouldn’t be. We’re all human. We can disagree about things. I understand that there’s real things at stake but when people just feel comfortable being hateful it’s very unsettling,” Abusch-Magder said.
There are huge feelings of loneliness and abandonment by the people in power who should be stepping up to support their constituents. MWO Orlando works with interfaith groups and city officials, who have expressed strong support for Israel while remaining “very silent about what Palestinians are going through,” Saied said.
“It’s difficult for us to be comfortable in those partnerships right now,” Saied said. The organization is trying to navigate how to move forward in a way that aligns with their values.
“The school board will send out a message saying ‘I stand with Israel.’ But that message is going out to Palestinian families in our community whose loved ones are dying, right?” Saied said.
In California, Nizam is experiencing a similar disparity. She understands why so many city officials and law enforcement agencies expressed support for Israel immediately after the October 7 attacks. But in the weeks since, no one has stood up for Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities who are experiencing Islamophobia and indescribable loss. She said no one is holding space for Muslim emotions right now.
“I feel like I’m invisible today because my elected officials, my community leaders that I looked up to, have not honored my trauma or my sentiments at all,” Nizam said. It stings even more when the silence comes from people she organized for and helped put in office.
Lazar Price has been disappointed by the inaction of other women’s organizations when it comes to addressing the violence experienced by Israeli women. “We are stunned by the silence of the broader feminist community who are always front and center, talking about how rape as a crime and is used as a weapon of war,” she said. She doesn’t see groups like UN Women speaking up for the women and children who are victims of Hamas’ violence both in the October 7 attacks and in the ongoing hostage crisis.
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Lazar Price was in Israel on October 7; since then one of her focuses has been advocating for the hostages still being held by Hamas. She helped put strollers out on Capitol Hill to raise awareness about kidnapped children. Back home in Silver Spring, Maryland, she reacts differently to the sounds she hears on the street: instead of wind she hears emergency sirens, and low-flying planes remind her of fighter jets. Lazar Price is on high alert; she lives close to her synagogue, and when she hears sirens she waits to make sure they don’t stop at her place of worship.
“We fear an escalation that, you know, one day is the writing on the wall in the form of graffiti, and the next day, it’s words and then, God forbid, the next day, it turns into actualized violence,” Lazar Price said. “Jews are always aware of antisemitism, but the rates of antisemitism and the vehemence of antisemitism have risen to levels that I don’t ever remember in my lifetime, and I’m 50 years old.”
These women are all community caretakers — and say they take care of themselves by taking care of others. But the work takes its toll.
“I said to [my daughter], you need to do the dishes, you need to do the cooking because mommy can’t do that anymore,” Nizam said. “And she said, ‘Mom, you know, I would tell you to quit this and stay home if I saw other people picking this up and doing the job that you need to do.’”
Nizam was recently widowed; the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death was in October. She has been advocating for local students, handling comms for hate incidents, and being a support for the people around her on top of her personal grief. She understands her position at CAIR comes with an important responsibility.
“I have to tell myself, not today. I cannot afford to sit here and mourn the loss of my husband, when thousands of men and women and children, 11,000 Palestinians, are being massacred,” Nizam said. “I cannot sit here and mourn the loss of one when 11,000 are to be mourned for and fought for, and Palestinian, Muslim and Arab community members right here need me to stand up for them.”
As a faith leader, Abush-Magder has been a key support in her community. “Literally every conversation I start with is either, how are you navigating the trauma and the impact of what happened on October 7? Or are you feeling safe? Are you feeling secure?” she said. She talked to someone newly pregnant, and instead of celebrating they discussed whether it was a safe time to bring a Jewish baby in the world — something people shouldn’t have to consider, but are.
“Political powers will always push us toward hatred and justice. I push toward hope, I also push toward love. And that’s not easy,” Abush-Magder said.
“You can be dead and still alive if you’re only living with fear and hate in your heart. It’s just not going to work.”