The recent spree of vicious anti-Semitic attacks has weighed on Jonathan Ismael Velez like a lead apron. Miami Beach is more than 1,300 miles from the New Jersey kosher market where three people were shot dead in early December, and even farther from Monsey, New York, where a Hanukkah celebration was cut short by a machete-wielding assailant later that month. But for Velez, a practicing Jew and South Beach resident, the distance provided little peace of mind.
Suddenly feeling unsafe in public places, he took to Facebook to see whether there were other Jews in his community who could relate.
"I know I shouldn't be ashamed of my faith, culture, or where my family came from, but as a Jew, with the recent events in New York and Philadelphia, I have started to remove my kippah as soon as I leave synagogue simply because I do not want to be targeted for my faith," Velez wrote in a recent post on a page for Miami Beach residents. "I fear it is only a matter of time before something happens in my hometown."
The post drew more than 50 comments from other Miami Beach residents, but one stood out to Velez: "Start carrying a firearm. I believe Johnson Firearms is still doing the cwp [concealed weapons permit] class for free for Jewish residents."
Though the suggestion might seem extreme, there's evidence some members of the local Jewish community are taking precautions by arming themselves. David Johnson, the owner of Johnson Firearms in Buena Vista, tells New Times he has seen a steady uptick in Jewish clientele over the past year and a half. Johnson Firearms began offering free CWP classes to Jewish residents about a year ago, and since then, Johnson has had at least one Jew in each of his biweekly classes.
"Unfortunately, it's like free advertising for gun stores whenever there's an attack on Jewish people, especially synagogues," says Johnson, who says he donated a pistol and a lockbox to a synagogue that some of his friends attend. "This community is scared and looking for ways to protect itself."
One of the managers at Johnson Firearms, Josh Anderson, is Jewish and says he's surprised the surge in purchases hasn't been even higher.
"I think the paradigm is starting to shift in the Jewish community," Anderson says. "In South Florida, I'd say most Jews have an anti-gun mentality, but that's starting to change."
Beginning with the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the growing number of anti-Semitic attacks has shaken Jewish communities across the nation. In South Florida, which is second only to New York in per capita Jewish population, that grief was followed by action. Miami synagogues and Hebrew schools began enlisting the services of private security forces and off-duty police officers, the Miami Herald reported in late December. The synagogue Velez attends now uses a handheld metal detector to check visitors before allowing entry and recently began requiring younger Jews like him to walk elderly members home after services to help ensure their safety.
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"It's always an uneasy feeling that you can't shop at your favorite kosher store without fear of becoming the next victim on the news," Velez says. "I live in a building with Orthodox Jews, and they've told me that they feel it might just be safer to return to Israel than remain in the United States."
The Miami-Dade Police Department has reportedly heightened patrols near Jewish places of worship and is working with federal officials to assess reports of any potential threats. In Miami Beach, officers have also reportedly increased their presence around Jewish gathering places, including synagogues and community centers.
For his part, Velez already has a concealed weapons permit, although he says he would rather not have to carry, particularly inside his synagogue.
"If I had the choice not to carry, I wouldn't. In a perfect world, I would feel safer if the only people with guns were our local PD," he says. "But in truth, most members of our community just don't feel confident."