Jewish Support and Empathy for Asian Americans

As president of the Korean American Coalition Metro Atlanta, Sarah Park spent much of the past week fielding media requests for help in covering Tuesday’s shooting deaths of eight people — including six Asian women — at three Atlanta spas.

Park, who has ties to Jewish Atlanta, expressed gratitude for the support and empathy the community has provided. “The Jewish community understands the victim and the trauma and the history, how that plays among the community,” she told the AJT.

Assaults against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have escalated over the past year, particularly as the COVID-19 spread. AAPI leaders have pointed to the manner in which the virus’ apparent Chinese origins were targeted, sometimes mockingly, by the White House and supporting media. Police said that the 21-year-old man now charged with eight counts of murder claimed a sex addiction and told them the spas were a “temptation” he wanted to “eliminate.” Korean and other AAPI leaders cite the six victims’ ethnicity as evidence of a hate crime.

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Numerous Jewish organizations issued statements in response to the tragedy. The American Jewish Committee’s regional office in Atlanta said, “The dramatic rise in incidents of hate targeting Asian Americans across the nation — nearly 3,800 in the past year, and more than 500 in the first two months of 2021, according to Stop AAPI Hate, is despicable. American Jews understand the fear and tragedy that the diverse Asian American community is experiencing.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta said that it “stands in solidarity with the Asian American and Pacific Islander women and their communities against hate and violence. . . As Jewish tradition teaches, ‘Don’t stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16).’ We have an obligation to lift up our voices when faced with hatred and discrimination when fueled by race, ethnicity, religion or gender.”

Though not Jewish, Park’s appreciation for the Jewish response stems in part from work with ACCESS Atlanta, the American Jewish Committee’s young leadership program. “I think the Jewish community is definitely a great model when it comes to civic engagement,” Park said.

When Park considers the trajectory of her community, she sees parallels with the Jewish experience and much worth emulating, particularly in how the Jewish community has progressed through American history. Both communities also have suffered acts of violence that have reached to the core of their ethnic and American identities.

Just as the American Jewish community is far from monolithic — with its range of ethnicities, races and religious practices — so is the Asian American community. And just as the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre of 11 Shabbat morning worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was a blow felt by all American Jews, the recent Atlanta killings have similarly impacted the AAPI community.

The Jewish world provided a model of another sort during Park’s childhood in South Korea, recalling that her parents had books, published in Korean, about Jewish parenting techniques. Her first personal exposure came as a student at Walton High School in Marietta, which she remembers having a significant Jewish population.

Park likened the Jewish community to the older sibling or upperclassmen in school who provide something of a map for the those who might follow. “Every community is on their own course and path. We’re on a similar course maybe to the Jewish community,” she said. “I feel like it’s okay for me to explain to them, we’re working on it, growing on it, we have our own pace to get there.”

Park sees the Korean community emulating aspects of the Jewish experience, which included immigrant parents sacrificing for their children’s future; families placing an emphasis on education and respect for elders; and overcoming obstacles to achieve positions of influence in business and politics. “We are trying to build a community to make bridges, to make this country better. We’re actually learning how to do that right now,” she said.

Park also voiced appreciation for what she termed the Jewish community’s “very intentional” approach, seeking to create relationships and establish trust over time. “I think that if the Jewish community can let the Asian American community feel assured that we are understood and that they understand, I think that’s a huge piece. That feels more authentic,” she said.

Junko Horvath works to bridge her Jewish, Asian American and Japanese identities. Over her 30 years in the United States, she said she has experienced varying attitudes within and outside of those communities, and seen how religious and ethnic prejudice can lead to harm and discrimination.

Horvath, a financial planner who was the subject of an AJT profile in October 2019, said that last spring, as she read about street attacks on the AAPI community, she thought, “I’m not safe, because of my face. I have an Asian face. I have to be more careful. I didn’t even think that way before.”

The first reported cases of COVID-19 came from the Chinese city of Wuhan, a circumstance that has caused some Americans to express animus toward Chinese. “Americans don’t know who’s Chinese, who’s Japanese, who’s Korean,” Horvath said. “They’re frustrated.”

Horvath is aware when people look only at the surface characteristics. “I notice all the time because, even though I have been here for 30 years, my face doesn’t change. I look Asian. I was born with an Asian face and I’ll die with an Asian face. As long as I look like an Asian, they think I’m a foreigner,” she said.

Horvath embraces her identities. “I love being Jewish. I love being Asian,” she said, while acknowledging that both can be problematic, and not only from the threat of physical harm. She does not fit outsiders’ stereotypes of American Jews as white and Ashkenazic, whose lineage is eastern European. And within the Jewish community, Horvath has had her religious identity questioned by children at a day school — she passed their informal quiz on the Hebrew phrases for “good morning” and “good night” — and at an event for Jewish women.

Because she is Asian and speaks English with a Japanese accent, she has on occasion confronted prejudice among potential clients. And within the Asian American community, Horvath said that resentments remain from the treatment Japan accorded other Asians, Chinese and Koreans, in particular, during World War II.

The sum of Horvath’s experiences is her positive attitude: “I can be kinder to other people. I can be stronger. Those people make me stronger. I can be nicer, kinder, and understand other people better.”

Horvath added, “I really want to be a bridge. I’m Orthodox.” She’s a member of Congregation Ariel. “I want to be a bridge among Jews. I want to be a bridge among the Jewish and non-Jewish, and also a bridge between Japanese and other Asians.”

Originally published at https://atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com on March 22, 2021.

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