Being Jewish and Asian at a time of hate crimes

In Montclair, New Jersey, an act of antisemitism shakes family.
Posted at 2:07 PM, Feb 17, 2023

Moving to the suburban New Jersey community of Montclair from Northern California a year ago in the midst of the pandemic, Liyan Chen found a comforting new racially diverse home.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans were, and continue to be, a major concern in Northern California with Asian women being especially vulnerable since COVID-19 was unleashed in Wuhan, China in 2019

“I was very nervous and scared,” said Chen, 33. “I was aware of the statistics—my status being a smallish Asian woman in the city.”

Cognizant of the animosity toward Asian Americans in the aftermath of the pandemic, Chen is now also aware of the rise in antisemitism in the country. As a converted Jew who worships with her husband, Brian Solomon and toddler son, she couldn’t believe what happened near her home in Montclair. Vulgar graffiti, including a swastika, were sprayed at a children’s playground in Edgemont Park in December. It’s a stark reminder of the divisiveness of the current state of political affairs.

Hate incidents rising

Indeed, antisemitism is on the rise in the United States. In a 2002 survey by the American Jewish Council, 43% of Jewish Americans believe anti-Jewish hate is a problem in the country today. Documented harassment and vandalism against Jews rose to their highest level in 2021 since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking in 1979. Incidents include the mass killing of 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and basketball star Kyrie Irving espousing conspiracy theories against Jews.

In 2017, extremists donned t-shirts in Charlottesville with the moniker “Jews will not replace us.” The acts of hatred are occurring in open public spaces, not behind fringe closed doors.

Meanwhile, hate incidents against Asian American rose to over 11,500 cases across the country from March 2020 through December 2022. According to the nonprofit, two out of three of the incidents involved an Asian female victim.

Chen is conscious of her identity as an Asian woman and as a Jew. She has talked with her family about the crisis, including her mother-in-law. Racism is not just a bi-coastal problem in the United States. It’s an issue that impacts all of America, said Chen, who initially immigrated to Iowa as an undergraduate college student from China.

Race and bias

Regarding racial diversity, Montclair, New Jersey, is a melting pot. Just over 60% of the residents identify as White, 20% as Black, 10% as Hispanic and 5% as Asian, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. It makes the recent antisemitic incident that much more shocking to the racially diverse community.

“For us, this is a place to spread awareness,” Montclair resident Jeff Chang said of Edgemont Park.

As an early member of the community group AAPI Montclair, Chang helped with the Lantern Festival in 2021 after the Atlanta Spa shootings that targeted Asian women's businesses and killed eight people. “So many of us care so much about our community.”

Montclair Lantern Festival against Asian hate.

During the Lantern Festival in Montclair, volunteers erected a wall signaling hate has no home in the suburb. The wall remembered events in Asian American history, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Wall against hate in Montclair, NJ.

Chen often reflects on her identity, and how it shapes her life.

“Being Asian and Jewish in a time like this, there is a lot of emotion, and the burden that comes with it,” she said,

There have been discussions with her husband on how to go about their everyday lives, Chen said. Asian American women in Montclair take self-defense classes hosted by AAPI Montclair. Chen’s family continues to worship at the temple, undaunted by the hate.

“We shouldn’t let fear dominate our lives,” she said. “We shouldn’t not celebrate our heritage because of fear of what might happen.”

NOTE: This article was edited to reflect that Liyan Chen moved to Montclair a year ago.

Mary Chao is a NYC-based Specialty Reporter at Scripps News. Email