Joe Py had been chipping away at a project he dreaded. In the past few years, he sold his valuable paperweight collection, got certified copies of his birth and marriage documents, and researched what it would be like to be Jewish in other countries. Where there weren’t Confederate flags down the street, articles about armed Christian militant groups in the local paper, and megawatt celebrities spouting explicit antisemitism. As the midterms approached, bringing more instances of terrifying anti-Jewish rhetoric, he and his wife had their house staged to sell.
“Our question was, in the 1930s, when did people know it was time? When was it too late?” said the 66-year-old Maine doctor.
While their Jewish friends and people at their synagogue weren’t considering moving the way they were, no one dismissed their preparations as ridiculous, he said. Their real estate agent said they weren’t the only Jewish family exploring moving. She offered to hide them if that were ever needed.
The defeat of several prominent election deniers and Christian nationalists in the November midterms calmed Py and his wife enough to put a potential move on hold, but the questions about Jews’ place in America didn’t go away.
“This is totally new psychological-emotional territory,” he said.
The year 2022 began and is ending with some of the highest-recorded modern levels of antisemitic actions and Jewish worry. An atmosphere that experts say began as a shock with the 2016 election of Donald Trump and his comments against religious and racial minorities has matured, taken root and for some led to serious consideration or action toward emigrating. Warm pride in Jewish parts of the national zeitgeist such as “Seinfeld” has given way to cold calculations about what if.
The United States doesn’t track the religious identities of people who take citizenship or acquire visas elsewhere, and other countries don’ttrack that information about incoming Americans either, so it’s impossible to know how many of America’s approximately 7.5 million Jews — about 2.4 percent of the population — may have left or considered it. However, there has been a rise in paperwork for some popular destinations.
Germany, which has for decades offered citizenship to people whose ancestors were deprived of it by the Nazis, has seen the number of Americans pursuing that status climb from 42 in 2000 and 638 in 2016 to 1,195 in 2021. A majority of these people, according to the German Embassy, are Jewish. Israel, another popular destination, for a decade saw the number of American Jews immigrating there each year hover in the low 3,000s. In 2021, 4,051 U.S. Jews moved there, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Steven Windmueller, a Hebrew Union College political scientist who studies American Jews, said they are being simultaneously affected by the antisemitism that began showing itself around the 2016 election and a renewed interest in and rediscovery of their roots in other countries. New genetic testing services, plus time and distance from the Holocaust, have also changed U.S. Jews’ connection to their ancestral lands.
What’s not clear yet, he says, is “whether this is curiosity or people looking primarily for a safe haven.”
He speaks to Jewish groups around the country about Jews and political behavior, and hears a lot of “what ifs.”
“Folks are talking about ‘What if?’ What if Trump had won in 2020, or if the GOP had swept the 2022 midterms? These are people who say they’ve thought about moving out of this country, whether they should raise kids here,” Windmueller said. Jewish conversations about even the possibility of leaving have “intensified.”
Sebastien Levi, who grew up in France and lived in Israel before moving to the United States in 2010 with his family, idolized America as a tolerant, liberal place where minorities could thrive. In his mind, Emma Lazarus — a Jew whose poem about America welcoming immigrants is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty — along with the rule of law and Jerry Seinfeld added up to “how you can truly be a Jew and also an American.”
Now Levi, a cosmetics executive who lives with his wife and three kids in Brooklyn, is thinking seriously about moving away, at least for a time. The white supremacists marching in Charlottesville and Trump’s response were his “turning point.” Then came bans on books, election denial and security outside Jewish institutions he thought he’d only ever see in Europe. More recently, big-name celebrities including Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, have let loose explicit antisemitism.
“I don’t wake up like, ‘Oh my god,’ in fear. It’s more like, now you’re just wondering,” Levi said. “But when you see American democracy being weakened the way it is, a president who said, ‘I alone can fix it’ — this is not good for the Jews. Attacking democracy at the end of the day is attacking minorities and Jews.”
Levi’s worry even scarred something he’d dreamed of his whole life: his naturalization ceremony to become an American. In the days before it, he wrote to The Washington Post that his “American dreams had been shattered” and that the event had become a formality “that will allow me to have yet another passport, which is more than ever the most valuable commodity a Jew can have, these days and throughout our history. ... The ‘just in case’ mentality is really important. Just be ready.”
On the actual day of the ceremony, Levi was incredibly emotional. He carried a U.S. flag and wrote a happy post on Facebook. The midterm elections had held at bay his worst fears.
Others have also found themselves on such middle ground.
Brian Greenspan, 51, is studying to be a nurse and at the same time working toward getting his Lithuanian citizenship through his father’s father, whose whole family was wiped out by Nazis. He and his cousins began gathering the paperwork after Trump was elected.
Greenspan was never particularly observant, but has become more nervous in recent years, watching white supremacists in Charlottesville chant, “Jews will not replace us” in 2017 and then this year as NBA star Kyrie Irving promoted an antisemitic film called “Hebrews to Negroes.” To Greenspan, those things are directly connected to other things he sees as anti-democratic, such as laws making it harder to vote. “I’m Jewish, I’m gay, I’m liberal. I feel there are too many targets. I don’t know if Europe is better.”
Greenspan’s 2021 Halloween costume was a riff off a 2018 Facebook post by now-Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who shared a conspiracy theory that California wildfires were started by a laser from space that might have been orchestrated by Jewish bankers.
The costume reflected Greenspan’s belief that such people are “ridiculous and yet incredibly dangerous,” he said.
“I think it’s weird to be Jewish in America. Our sense of humor and Yiddish words like ‘schlepping’ are as American as apple pie, but yet we’re still this other who is pulling the strings,” he said. “They talk about the frog in the water, and you slowly turn up the heat, and it never notices and suddenly he’s boiling. That’s what I am afraid of.”
Interest in emigrating may not extend to all generations, said Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, a Jewish educator who recently wrote a book about how antisemitism is affecting teens and young adults.
“I think we’re in a time when young people especially are holding multiple truths,” she said. “They are very much inherently universalists in a world where Judaism calls for particularism. They are figuring out how to navigate this. They’re comfortable in the space of ‘yes — and.’”
Alex Edelman, a comedian whose Orthodox Jewish upbringing has informed his work, including the recent show “Just for Us,” about a Jew who sneaks into a white nationalist meeting, says he may represent what he calls millennial “pragmatic idealism.”
At 33, he shares what he described as his generation’s instinct and confidence to stay and change things.
“It never occurred to me to leave. I don’t know that that would be productive. If I find myself off in social circles with people I disagree with, and someone says: ‘Why don’t you leave this group?’ I think: The group will be more homogeneous without me; what will happen to my opinion and those who have it?”
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