At 55, Rabbi Matthew Cutler is too young to have lived through the Holocaust, or witnessed the rise in anti-Semitism that occurred in the U.S. in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
So when Cutler tells me that he "can't recall a time when anti-Semitism was as blatant" as it is now, I believe him.
And I worry for the future.
The deadly mass shooting that occurred Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh didn't come out of the blue. It came amid a disturbing resurgence in American anti-Semitism, one we ignore or downplay at our peril.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2017 saw a 60-percent jump in anti-Semitic incidents -- bomb threats, hateful messages, physical assaults, vandalism and graffiti. The year before, the ADL reported a 35-percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents.
"This is really unprecedented," said Cutler, who serves as spiritual leader at Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady.
It should also be a wake-up call.
Those of us who aren't Jewish -- a category that includes myself -- need to express support for those who are, and to denounce anti-Semitism whenever possible.
What was once a fringe movement in America is creeping into the mainstream, and it's unacceptable.
Even more disturbing, it's happening at a time when the FBI data suggests that hate crimes in general -- crimes motivated by bias against race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender -- are on the rise.
"We're living a culture right now of hate, where hatred, belittling and viciousness are the norm," Cutler said. "We're not talking about peace and community on a national scale."
The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is frightening in large part because it feels like something that could happen almost anywhere.
Like Tree of Life, Congregation Gates of Heaven partners with HIAS, a Jewish aid organization that helps refugees, and joined other synagogues in signing a statement in support of welcoming refugees to the U.S. A week ago, Congregation Gates of Heaven held a refugee Shabbat -- a service dedicated to refugees.
"We talk about the fact that it says in the Torah we should be kind to the stranger," Cutler said.
That's a good message -- but not one the suspect in the Pittsburgh shooting agreed with. Officials have said that his online rantings are filled with hateful remarks about both Jews and refugees.
Saturday's shooting made me sad, but speaking with Cutler lifted my spirits.
He stressed that, while anti-Semitism is real, good people can join together to defeat it.
"We can control this," Cutler said. "We can say, 'This is wrong, this is bad.' We have to stand up to it." He noted that none of the synagogue's planned activities for the weekend, such as a sleepover for youth, were canceled in the aftermath of the shooting.
"We made precautions," Cutler said. "We sent notices to parents talking about how we were being extra-vigilant. But there's a part of us that said, 'We are not going to let this define us. If we change what we do, terror wins.'"
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]