'Judaism teaches us to mourn with people from other nations'

Jewish initiative aims to support Asian New Yorkers following Monterey Park shooting

Jews For Asians will send volunteers to help mourners feel safe at vigils and solidarity events this week as the Asian American community processes yet another tragedy

A Jews For Asians event that took place in March 2021 in New York City. (Courtesy/via JTA)
A Jews For Asians event that took place in March 2021 in New York City. (Courtesy/via JTA)

New York Jewish Week — After the January 21 mass shooting that took the lives of mostly older Asian Americans in Monterey Park, California, a Jewish organization in New York is seeing renewed interest in an initiative that focuses on solidarity between the Asian and Jewish communities.

That initiative, called Jews For Asians, is gearing up for numerous vigils in New York this week as the Asian American community processes yet another tragedy. Just two days after a gunman opened fire on a Lunar New Year celebration and murdered 11 people, on Monday, yet another gunman killed seven people in two separate incidents in the California coastal town of Half Moon Bay.

Jews For Asians brings volunteers to vigils and solidarity events to help mourners feel safe in public spaces.

“This horrible incident on Lunar New Year drove a bunch of interest in Jews For Asians,” Carlyn Cowen, a co-founder of the group, told the New York Jewish Week. “We’re now plugging people in. We train people to offer solidarity support and then we connect people where that support is needed.”

Cowen started Jews For Asians with Rafael Shimunov after the Atlanta spa shooting spree in March 2021, when a gunman killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent. The group is a project of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), a progressive group.

“People just wanted to help,” Shimunov told the New York Jewish Week. “We wanted to use that energy. We saw hundreds of volunteers sign up.”

Cowen, a Filipnx JFREJ member, said that Jews For Asians also provides security for other communities. In addition, the group offers training on de-escalation, situational awareness, how to interact with the police, and more.

Hailie Kim, a Korean American who is holding a vigil this Thursday in Sunnyside, Queens, told the New York Jewish Week that Jews For Asians will send volunteers to the gathering.

“It is really touching to me that Rafael reached out,” Kim said. “We should all be working together in moments like this and beyond. We shouldn’t only be working together when things like this happen. It should be used as a model for how we behave in our daily lives.”

JFREJ also used solidarity support tactics in combating antisemitism with the Haredi community in 2020, and again in 2021 when a mosque was attacked in Brooklyn.

Kim, who is running for City Council in District 26, which encompasses Sunnyside, also said that she is worried about an increase in police presence at such events, and would prefer Jews For Asians volunteers to provide security at her vigil this week.

“When we ask people what makes them feel unsafe, it’s never that there are not enough police around,” Kim said. “I think having more police presence at events like this isn’t necessarily going to prevent anything.”

Asian New Yorkers are noticing an increase in the number of NYPD officers in lower Manhattan this week after the tragedy that took place last weekend. The NYPD told Gothamist it had shifted counterterrorism and patrol resources at Lunar New Year events across the city, but had not identified any threats in New York.

Shimunov, who is a Bukharian Jew and a member of JFREJ, said Jews For Asians shares a wariness about policing; JFREJ maintains that increased police presence and security can “militarize our community spaces” and make “communal spaces less safe for Jews of color, trans Jews, Jews with disabilities” and others.

“When we say we don’t need policing for things like this, or maybe for everything, how do we not just preach that, but even in a small way, how do we demonstrate to the world what that can look like and why it’s better,” Shimunov said.

He added that people in Los Angeles have reached out to Jews For Asians and asked if there was a similar program in California.

“We are looking to see if there is any group there that wants to take our model and replicate it,” Shimunov said.

Rabbi Mira Rivera, the first Filipina-American rabbi to be ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who also provides support through Jews For Asians, told the New York Jewish Week that she will be attending this Thursday’s vigil.

“We come together for celebrations, but now we have to come together for mourning again,” Rivera said. “The sense of duty is huge. It’s somehow deep within our interwoven cultures: Jews, Asians and Americans.”

She referred to a Talmud teaching that talks about how it is “our duty in Judaism to mourn with people from other nations.”

“Meaning the people of other cultures, in the same [way] that we mourn for our own people,” Rivera explained. “It is our duty to bury the dead of other nations in the same way as to bury the dead of our own. That’s the moment right now. It’s not just that they’re Asian. It’s all of us.”

Rivera is also leading a “learning and processing” event on Wednesday with the Asian Jewish organization Lunar Collective.

“We have different traditions, but not necessarily that different,” said Cowen, who described their father as a “Chicago Jew” and their mom as from the Philippines. “As a Jewish Asian, I’ve been watching both of my communities experience an increase in hate violence over the last few years. It is very much rooted in white supremacy and white nationalism.”

“It’s awesome that Jews For Asians is getting more attention,” Cowen added, “but I also don’t want to distract from the fact that it’s my Asian American community that needs support.”

Shimunov said that Jews For Asians is part of a “bigger picture” of building a multi-ethnic, multi-faith coalition that is used to combat against what he calls “the opposition,” which he views as government power, police presence with guns and white supremacy.

“If we can maintain this coalition, we can win anything,” Shimunov said. “We have all the numbers. It’s such a precarious thing that is always being tested. This is just one of the ways to keep that coalition together.”

Hate crimes against Asian Americans rose by 339% between 2020 and 2021, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

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