For the first time in the Cary Jewish Cultural Festival’s six years of existence, police officers conspicuously stationed themselves outside.
The first few months of 2017 have seen a notable increase in bomb threats at Jewish schools, community centers and synagogues. So security was tight.
Hundreds of people flocked to the Cary Community Center on Sunday to meet friends, get comfort food from Knish-A-Licious, learn about local Jewish groups, or attend small classes on topics ranging from Jewish comedy to how to make matzoh balls.
The mood was usually light, but it was impossible to avoid darker topics like the recent bomb threats or desecration of Jewish cemeteries.
“Some could say that this is not a fun time to be a Jew,” said Cary Town Council member Lori Bush. “But hey, listen: It wasn’t easy for our ancestors, either.”
Carin Savel, CEO of the Jewish Federal of Raleigh-Cary, said that before coming to Sunday’s community event she was at a synagogue with FBI agents and others, talking to a crowd about safety and awareness.
And although Cary and Raleigh have been spared from the anti-Semitic threats and vandalism that have hit Durham, Greensboro, Charlotte and Asheville, members of the local Jewish community have been affected.
Bush said two of her grandparents are buried in the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis that was recently vandalized. One of their tombstones was knocked over. That’s disrespectful, she said, especially since Jewish families traditionally stack rocks on top of tombstones to show respect over the years.
“We would bring back pebbles from places we visited,” Bush said. “And it was especially hard on my mom, not knowing what had happened to them.”
The work to restore that cemetery has been largely funded by donations from St. Louis’ Muslim community, a fact Bush mentioned several times. In a speech Sunday, she suggested inviting non-Jewish friends and neighbors over for Jewish holidays – like during Passover, which is April 10-18.
Others, like Savel, extolled the virtues of a more tight-knit Jewish community.
“When you connect with your Jewishness, we’re all stronger together,” she said.
Groups like Jewish Family Services, which operates a food pantry and other services, had booths set up Sunday to help people do just that. Barry Schwartz, the executive director, said at least 12,000 Jews live in Wake County.
A newer addition to the local Jewish community will be the PJ Library, an international children’s library with books about Jewish culture and religion that will soon launch a local branch.
Billie Skolnick and her husband, Corey, recently moved to Raleigh from Boston, where they had used a PJ Library to help educate their two young daughters. They’re excited for when the Wake County branch opens – which manager Beth Shalev should happen “soon.” (Find more details at www.pjlibrary.org.)
“It’s a very unique way for parents to bring Judaism into their kids’ lives,” Skolnick said. “We have friends who do it, who maybe only one of the parents is Jewish, or they didn’t grow up very religious but want to introduce their kids.”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran