'It makes me breathe a little bit easier'

In Europe, soaring antisemitism popularizes a new invention: The camouflaged mezuzah

Disguised to resemble an alarm sensor, Camozuzah is brainchild of Ireland-based Chabad rabbi; it’s increased adoption underlines surge in hostility to Jews amid Israel-Hamas war

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Marja Goldstoff holds the Camozuzah at the entrance to her home in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on October 31, 2023. (Courtesy)
Marja Goldstoff holds the Camozuzah at the entrance to her home in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on October 31, 2023. (Courtesy)

Shortly after October 7, Marja Goldstoff began feeling as if her home in Amsterdam had “a target painted on it,” she said.

The reason: The mezuzah, a piece of parchment containing Jewish scripture that Jews affix to their doorframes, typically inside rectangular cases that are immediately recognizable to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of this fundamental custom of Judaism.

Goldstoff, a retired journalist and mother of two, deemed it prudent to conceal the mezuzah amid the war between Israel and Hamas after the terror group’s slaughter of 1,400 people in Israel, and the wave of antisemitic incidents it has triggered in Europe and beyond.

She wanted to move the mezuzah to the inside of the doorframe, which is permissible under halacha, Jewish Orthodox law, under certain circumstances, including the threat of persecution. But her husband, Jehuda, objected, arguing this would be tantamount to ceding ground to intimidation that he was adamant about opposing.

On Sunday, the Dutch-Jewish couple found a compromise in Camozuzah: A mezuzah that a Chabad rabbi in Ireland developed in 2021.

Kosher according to halacha, Camozuzah is camouflaged to resemble the sensor of an alarm system. “It makes me breathe a little bit easier,” said Marja Goldstoff.

The Camozuzah, a camouflaged mezuzah designed to resemble a sensor, comes in two colors and two models. (Courtesy of Rabbi Zalman Lent)

The Goldstoffs are among 75 Jewish families in the Netherlands alone that have ordered Camozuzah since October 7.

Worldwide and in Europe especially, orders are for the first time streaming in, according to the product’s developer, Rabbi Zalman Lent of Dublin, Ireland.

Daniel Dunbar, proprietor of Dun-Well Donuts, affixes a mezuzah to the doorpost of the Brooklyn shop with Rabbi Yuri Foreman’s help on Monday, December 6, 2021. (Ben Sales/ JTA)

The product and the demand for it are fresh evidence of the effect on European Jewry of waves of antisemitism that have shocked their communities in recent years, especially whenever violence erupts between Israel and its neighbors.

In addition to causing thousands of West European Jews to leave for Israel and elsewhere each year, it is driving many of those who remain to hide their Jewishness for fear of violence and amid concern for the long-term viability of their communities.

In the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, pro-Palestinian rioters broke shop windows and set fires on July 20, 2014. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

Fears about being targeted for displaying a mezuzah are ancient in Europe, where solutions for the artifact’s concealment date back to the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 at least. At present, such fears are not unfounded.

On October 20, two assailants burned down the front door of a French-Jewish couple in their eighties. Their apartment in a residential building in the 20th district of Paris was the only one with a mezuzah, the ActuParis news site reported. Police arrested a man they suspect targeted the domicile for that reason.

Protesters hold placards, the left one reading reading “Gaza, Paris stands by you,” during a demonstration in central Paris on October 28, 2023. (Photo by Bertrand Guay / AFP)

It was one of hundreds of suspected antisemitic incidents documented in Western Europe since Hamas terrorists on October 7 killed some 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians, in a brutal cross-border onslaught and perpetrated atrocities and war crimes, including the abduction of more than 240 Israelis and foreign nationals into Gaza. Israel swiftly vowed to topple the Gaza-ruling terror group. Thousands were reported to have died in Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets as an IDF ground invasion gathers pace, though verified numbers are hard to come by.

Agitation within some Muslim communities in Europe began even before Israel declared war. In heavily-Muslim neighborhoods in Berlin, hundreds were documented celebrating the slaughter in Israel, including by handing out candy. Mass protests, some of them attended by hundreds of thousands of people, have been held in support of Gaza and Hamas and against Israel in European capitals, including in London on consecutive Saturdays.

Protesters hold placards and flags during a pro-Palestinian rally in Berlin, Germany, October 28, 2023. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

The Community Security Trust, a British-Jewish watchdog on antisemitism, has documented a tenfold increase in antisemitic incidents, most of them non-physical, in October over the same month last year, and the RIAS anti-racism group in Germany has seen a 250% rise in incidents.

Jewish schools across the continent closed down temporarily for security reasons in the days following the Hamas attack, some of them more than once. This response is not new to communities that have been preparing for violence at least since the 2012 slaying of four Jews at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, by an Islamist.

But the scale and circumstances of the current wave of incidents, coming on the heels of the deadliest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, are testing the resilience even of Jewish communities possessing considerable experience with such hardships.

In this March 23, 2012 file photo, police officers search for clues outside Mohamed Merah’s apartment building in Toulouse, southwestern France. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

In Berlin, these developments are changing the behavior of people like Lior Bar-Ami, a rabbi who has worn his kippah in public despite multiple attacks against people who are recognizably Jewish.

Even he has started wearing a baseball cap or hat over his kippah after October 7, he told The Times of Israel this month.

Lior Bar-Ami. (Andrej Grilc)

In Amsterdam, where most of the city’s 30,000 Jews are concentrated in three southern neighborhoods, the mezuzah has emerged as a vulnerability. Chaim Benistant, a 36-year-old businessman, is one of the local Jews who during this round of hostilities moved their mezuzah to a more concealed location, he told The Times of Israel last week.

Such concerns are what led Lent, the Ireland-based rabbi, to develop Camozuzah in 2021, he said. “It was developed mainly for Jewish students” who are likely to stand out because of a mezuzah on their doorframes, he said.

Rabbi Zalman Lent holds a box containing his invention: The Camozuzah, a mezuzah camouflaged as an alarm system sensor, on October 31, 2023. (Courtesy)

Students are still vulnerable to antisemitic harassment and worse in the Netherlands and the rest of Western Europe, said Rabbi Yanki Jacobs, the director of Chabad on Campus, a Dutch organization that promotes Jewish life in the country’s 14 universities and beyond. But now, many other Jewish residents and homeowners are ordering the Camozuzah, said Jacobs, who is also a leader of Chabad of Amsterdam.

Rabbi Yanki Jacobs. (Courtesy)

“The good news is that many of those who order it, in the Netherlands at least, are doing so because they find it important to have a mezuzah,” Jacobs said. “The bad news is they feel too afraid to install a normal mezuzah.”

Lent, the Camozuzah’s developer, ordered several thousand units from a factory in China that produced them according to his specifications. The units are in storage at Chabad’s New York offices and the movement’s emissaries around the world import the units their congregants need, he said. The sale of Camozuzah is not for profit, meant to cover only production and shipping costs.

The Camozuzah is made of rubber and has two models, a large and a small one, both available in white and black. The case costs about $20 and it features a fake indication light that resembles an alarm sensor. The parchment is fitted into the case at an angle but the case stands parallel to the doorframe, avoiding the giveaway of a tilted box on the doorframe.

Nifty and kosher though it is, the Camozuzah prompted some criticism during its unveiling, Lent said. “When we first showcased the Camozuzah to other Chabad rabbis, some of them objected, saying it was the opposite of the Chabad message of promoting a proud and visible Judaism,” Lent recalled.

Yet the increase in expressions of Jew-hatred in Europe and beyond means that a growing number of Jews will not have any mezuzah, he said. “Of course we encourage Jewish pride and a visible mezuzah where possible, but far better to have a hidden mezuzah than not to have one at all,” Lent added.

Yanki Jacobs, whose father, Binyomin, is a chief rabbi of the Netherlands, said he does not and would not use the Camozuzah at his home in southern Amsterdam. “I’m not interested in concealing my Jewishness like that,” said Jacobs, whose paternal family has lived in the Netherlands for many generations.

But some Dutch Jews do conceal it, Jacobs acknowledged. “And, at the end of the day, as a rabbi my job is to provide solutions that are kosher to the needs of my community. That’s exactly what the Camozuzah is about,” Jacobs said.

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