Rabbi Jack Paskoff and Mukaram Syed

Rabbi Jack Paskoff and Mukaram Syed

About 100 faithful from across three major religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — gathered in East Hempfield Township on Thursday night to talk and listen following an unprecedented rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia in the United States since the October Hamas attack on Israel.

No one mentioned fighting, theology or which side should prevail. Instead, they shared their shared fears of hatred and discrimination toward non-Christians.

“What we hear at our center is that Muslim women are being yelled at” for wearing hijabs to cover their heads and chests, said Mukaram Syed, a founding member of the Islamic Community Center in Lancaster. Syed, a Lititz engineer, spoke as part of a panel discussion held at Church of the Apostles United Church of Christ.

“There has been about a 400% increase in antisemitism in the last two months,” noted Lancaster rabbi Jack Paskoff, who also participated in the panel, referencing a November report from the advocacy group Anti-Defamation League.

The report found that, year over year, there were 312 reports of antisemitic incidents across the U.S., about 190 of which were directly tied to the war in the Mideast, between Oct. 7 and Oct. 23 – a 388% increase. Additionally, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group, saw a 216% year-over-year increase in requests for help and reports for bias in the month after the Hamas attack, with an average of 406 in 2022 and 1,283 in 2023.

Hempfield Community Belonging Initiative, a group so new that organizers are still working to create a website, sponsored the Thursday event, called “We’re Afraid: Jews and Muslims Talk About Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Our Community,” to educate Hempfield-area residents, school district administrators, teachers, staff and board members about Jewish and Muslim customs and beliefs, said Jaci Hoosier, one of the group’s founders. So far, the group consists of a steering committee and is working to grow membership.

The Rev. Kathryn Kuhn, a Church of the Apostles pastor who serves on the Hempfield Community group’s steering committee and who moderated the event, said she offered the sanctuary as a meeting space because the three religions represented share the same goal.

“Everyone should be accepted for who they are,” she said.

“We hope to accomplish awareness,” said Hoosier, who is Jewish. Hoosier met co-founder Nus Boland, a Muslim, at outdoor gatherings during COVID-19. The women quickly realized they shared feelings that their kids sometimes felt unseen in the Hempfield School District.

“We need something where kids feel safe and adults feel safe,” Boland said. “My son would come home from school and tell me things” about hearing religious or racial slurs, she said.

Two Hempfield school board members, Megan Eshleman and Justin Wogelmuth, along with Doug Dandridge, the district’s assistant superintendent for elementary education, attended Thursday’s discussion.

“Diversity should be celebrated,” Eshleman said. Wogelmuth and Dandridge said they came to support Hempfield community members.

Those who spoke also talked about individual displays of discrimination that have occurred for years.

Aleeza Virmani, who is Muslim and attends Hempfield High School, said she grows weary of repeatedly having to explain why she wears leggings in hot weather instead of shorts when she practices lacrosse. Her religious beliefs include dressing conservatively.

“I’m tired of getting dirty looks,” the freshman said.

Syed mentioned getting puzzling reactions from restaurant food servers when he asks for a fresh dish instead of just removing forbidden food, such as chopped bacon, from a salad. “They just want to take the bacon out,” said Syed. Both Islam and Judaism include prohibitions on consumption of pork and regulations on food preparation for cleanliness.

Teachers in all districts often randomly call on their lone Jewish student to explain Jewish theology or Jewish holidays, Paskoff said.

“What 7-year-old is going to know that?” he asked.

Paskoff said he sends an annotated two-year Jewish calendar to every school district in Lancaster County each January. Problems still seem to occur.

The Hempfield School District scheduled pictures two years running on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday. Also, the parent group associated with Hempfield Middle School Lacrosse scheduled an Easter egg hunt April 5, 2023, the first night of Passover.

“There is a Jewish girl and a Muslim girl on that team,” Hoosier said. Hoosier’s daughter didn’t go because she attended a seder. Virmani participated but couldn’t eat any food because she was fasting for Ramadan.

Hoosier, who frequently visits classrooms to present Jewish holiday customs, said she has noticed Easter and Christmas worksheets displayed. Other non-Christian parents have sent Hoosier pictures or comments about Christian-themed assignments. Conversations with teachers have helped spread Hoosier’s message.

“None of it is ever done with malice,” she said. “There are a lot of people trying to do better.”

Jennifer Chambers, an East Hempfield resident, urged community members to intervene if they witness religious discrimination. Chambers, who is Christian and white, said too many people who look like her choose to do nothing.

“It’s not their comfort zone,” she said. “It’s a very passive way. We neglect and discriminate.” 

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