Utah’s Jews harbor mixed feelings on Passover’s eve as Mideast fighting continues, anti-Semitism rises

SALT LAKE CITY — As Passover approaches, members of Utah’s Jewish community are looking forward with mixed sentiment amid a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the state and beyond connected to the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

“It’s pretty poignant this year because of the sorrow and the pain people are experiencing in both Israel and Gaza,” said Judi Amsel, a member of the leadership team at Congregation Brith Sholem in Ogden.

Passover, which starts Monday, commemorates the liberation of Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, a joyous and momentous occasion. Yet, Amsel noted, perhaps around 130 people took hostage from Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, by members of the terrorist group Hamas are still being held, some of them possibly dead by now. “It weighs very heavily on us all, absolutely,” she said.

Alex Shapiro, executive director at the Salt Lake City-based United Jewish Federation of Utah, said he plans to leave an empty seat at his table during traditional Seder dinners next week on the first and second nights of the holiday, which lasts until April 30 .The vacant place is to represent the hostels in Gaza.

“This year, (Passover) really takes on extra meaning when we think of what it means to be free,” Shapiro said. “How can we really feel free as a people when that is happening?”

The Oct. 7 incursion and attack by Hamas extremists from Gaza into neighboring Israel prompted a fierce series of counterattacks by Israel into Gaza. The hostilities have lingered — pro-Palestine activists and others have accused Israel of carrying out disproportionately aggressive attacks on Gaza. Now, Iran, an enemy of Israel, is involved. The turn of events has cast a shadow on the eve of Passover, one of the most important religious holidays for Jews, but at the same time, members of Utah’s community say Passover is about resilience in the face of hostility.

“We’ve seen a massive spike in anti-Semitism in the past year, so the story of Passover touches on resilience in the face of anti-Semitism and the importance of continuing Judaism,” said Rabbi Samuel Spector, who leads Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City . He estimates Utah’s Jewish community numbers around 15,000.

Indeed, in a report released Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League said it had counted 8,873 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2023, a 140% increase from 3,968 in 2022, and the most ever since the organization started tracking data. Between Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, and the end of the year, the organization tabulated well over half of the incidents for the year, 5,204.

How can we really feel free as a people when that is happening?

–Alex Shapiro, United Jewish Federation of Utah

FBI Director Christopher Wray also reported a spike in anti-Jewish hate crime investigations by the agency since Oct. 7, 2023, and said the FBI is on alert for threats against the community as Passover nears, Axios reported Thursday.

Utah hasn’t been immune to the trend of rising anti-Semitism, and Amsel, Shapiro and Spector say they’ve noticed a jump in such activity in the state since late last year.

“Somebody asked me yesterday how many police reports we’ve filed since Oct. 7. I lost count,” said Spector. His synagogue received four bomb threats in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, he said, and has hired extra security in response to the tense situation.

“It is a really, really tough time to be Jewish in America, Jewish in the world, Jewish everywhere,” Amsel said.

Likewise, Shapiro said anti-Semitism is nothing new, calling it “the oldest form of hate in the world.” Jewish people are accustomed to fending it off. “This is a fight we’ve been fighting for a long time,” he said.

Still, while it’s OK to be unhappy with the aggressive response to Hamas in Gaza of Israeli forces and the leadership of the Israeli government, that displeasure doesn’t justify blanket antisemitism, Shapiro said.

The story of Passover and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, meanwhile, “gives hope that tomorrow will be better than today,” Spector said. “This has been a very difficult past six months and not the world we want to be in. We want to have peace in our world.”