(JTA) – When a man broke into the home of a Jewish family in Studio City, California, last week yelling antisemitic language and “Free Palestine,” neighbors quickly honed in on a key detail: The assailant had allegedly previously questioned the family about the mezuzah on their door.
This caused some fear among secular Jews on their block, said Menachem Silverstein, an Orthodox comedian and rabbi who is close friends with the victims. He said an Israeli neighbor told him that he was considering taking his family’s mezuzah down.
But the response from Silverstein’s non-Jewish neighbors, he said, “gave me goosebumps”: They proposed putting up their own.
“I’m tearing up. I’m like, this is the most beautiful thing anybody has ever said to me,” Silverstein recalled to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It was the inspiration I needed, personally.”
The neighbors ultimately decided that the break-in was a one-time incident and held off on following through with their offer. Still, Silverstein said, the mere gesture that they might be willing to support Jews in this way stuck with him at a time when so many Jews say they are feeling alone and unsupported by the non-Jews they know.
He compared the moment to the “I am Spartacus” scene in the 1960 movie, in which the hero’s countrymen all identify as him in order to protect his identity. It also calls to mind the myth that the king of Denmark wore a yellow Star of David to shield the country’s Jews under Nazi rule.
“If everyone has a mezuzah, no one has to take it down and you can’t identify the Jews who have a mezuzah,” he said.
And to Silverstein, the gesture invoked something even more gut-wrenching. “To me it felt like the precursor to ‘We’ll hide you when you’re in our attic.’”
Silverstein’s reaction taps into a broader conversation taking place in Jewish homes and communities around the world. As antisemitic sentiment has risen across the world in the wake of Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis in a terrorist attack on Oct. 7, Jews are questioning whether their mezuzahs — small boxes containing a passage from the Torah commanding Jews to inscribe the words on the doorposts of their homes — make them vulnerable to attacks by identifying their homes as Jewish.
In some places, as in Studio City, it seems that the fears have been justified. In Canada, an Ontario couple says they believe their mezuzah was a giveaway to vandals who spray-painted antisemitic graffiti on their garage. Jews in Paris and Berlin who have expressed concern about Jewish stars being painted on their buildings wonder whether it was their mezuzahs that tipped the vandals off.
Some are seeking ways to keep their mezuzahs up while making them inconspicuous. In Europe, some Jews have been buying up Camozuzah, a mezuzah disguised to look like a home alarm, originally developed by a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in Ireland in 2021 for Jewish university students concerned about antisemitism there.
Others may be removing their mezuzahs altogether. Jews in London and Berlin say they’ve taken their mezuzahs down as a safeguard against unrest. Levi Wolff, the rabbi at the Modern Orthodox Central Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, posted on Instagram this week that an anonymous person had left a mezuzah at his house, which he took to mean that “someone in our community has removed his/her mezuzah and is returning it to me, out of fear of their home being recognized as a Jewish home.”
Wolff, who is affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, then implored Jews to keep their mezuzahs up and to not be afraid in the face of antisemitism, such as a pro-Palestinian protest in Sydney where participants recently chanted “Gas the Jews.” Other Chabad rabbis have emphasized that now is an ideal time to put up mezuzahs, an act that they counteracts darkness in the world, and many have taken steps to distribute mezuzahs in their communities.
Other spiritual leaders have struck a more cautious tone. Marc Katz, a rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey, posted on Facebook Tuesday that, in light of Halloween, Jews should consider being extra cautious with how many visible signs of Jewish identity they display on their houses.
“It’s OK to take down your outward signs of support for Israel or even your outward signs of Jewish identity (like your mezuzah) if you are truly worried for your safety,” Katz wrote, in a post also shared by his synagogue. “At times that are unsafe, Jews are allowed to do the imperfect to protect themselves and their resources.”
The rabbi cautioned his congregants that they should be prepared to return to normal “when the threat goes away.”
Elsewhere, other non-Jews looking to stand in solidarity with Jews and Israel also shared plans to put up their own mezuzahs. One non-Jewish woman in Toronto went viral on the social network X, formerly known as Twitter, for sharing her own mezuzah affixed to the door of her apartment building. She says she procured it inexpensively from a Judaica shop after consulting with Jewish friends who told her that it wouldn’t be insensitive.
“Some of our Toronto neighbours are facing harassment — just for being Jewish,” wrote the woman, who identified herself as Susie Movat. “As a non Jew, I’m putting a mezuzah on my door to stand in solidarity with my friends who deserve to live without fear. Never again.”
Some Jewish users applauded her. “While current events have seen so many of our neighbours rip off masks to show us the deep rot of systemic antisemitism, it has also blessed Jews by shining spotlights on those non-Jews in our midst who like Susie passed this “would you have hid Jews during the Holocaust” test,” wrote Yoni Freedhoff, an Ottawa physician who tweets frequently on Canadian Jewish issues. The British Jewish historian Simon Schama, author of “The Story of the Jews,” joined in the appreciation.
But others said they thought the gesture represented cultural appropriation, in the vein of Christian Passover seders, and questioned whether it was the strongest show of allyship. “You can donate to a synagogue’s security fund (yeah, we have those, because we have to) or education fund,” one representative user tweeted. “Appropriation is NOT the way.”
Silverstein, who comes from a Chabad family, said he didn’t interpret his neighbors’ gesture as appropriative. Instead, he said, “It was such a beautiful thing to see non-Jews acknowledge the importance of a mezuzah.”
As for whether Jews everywhere should consider taking their own down for protection, Silverstein advised, “Consult your local rabbi.” But he noted Jewish tradition teaches that the mezuzah itself is historically its own form of protection.
“Our mezuzah is the security system. Our mezuzah has the Shema in it,” he said. “Having that mezuzah up, as scary as it may seem, I truly feel that God will protect you.”