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Jewish & Muslim Leaders Respond to Threats

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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) -- As Rabbi Michael Churgel knows all too well, the common thread through major Jewish holidays is hate a persecution.

"Whether it was the Persians, or the Babylonians, or the Romans, or the Germans," said Churgel. "The general story is there were people who hated us, we fought back, we endured."

Now Churgel and the 400 families who visit Temple Sinai are watching a new story unfold with America as the antagonist.

"We have these parents who are hearing about all of these threats to Jewish institutions, and wondering if something's going to happen here," said Churgel.

Since the start of the year, Jewish cemeteries in three major U.S. cities have had their headstones toppled and more than 160 Jewish institutions have received bomb threats--those include synagogues and Jewish community centers.

In December, three swastikas were drawn outside Temple Sinai's day school. Nearly 60 kindergarten and preschool students attend the school.

"We've begun a dialogue on if and how we might increase security in our own building," said Churgel.

In March, the Anti-Defamation League--a group monitoring hate crimes against the Jewish community--included State College of Florida in a report listing hundreds of campuses where Nazi propaganda fliers have been posted.

The college says the sign wasn't up long and likely won't happen agains since the school monitors all posters on campus.

As for the rest of society, civil rights attorney Andrea Flynn Mogensen expects state prosecutors will be cracking down. In Florida, hate crimes can elevate a misdemeanor to a third degree felony.

"Political speech is First Amendment protected. However, there is a limitation on our First Amendment rights," said Mogensen. "You do not have the right to engage in what's considered hate speech."

Churgel says politicians failed to make this clear before the problem got out of hand.

"Because it wasn't denounced, it was almost as if they were given permission to come out and start saying things and doing things."

At the Islamic Society of Sarasota-Bradenton, Shiraz Hassan has noticed the same disturbing trend.

"Before it was certain right-wing groups would say this, or bloggers would say this, but now it's become mainstream," said Hassan. "The politicians are saying it openly, and it's become accepted that you can say whatever you want against Muslims and it's going to be okay."

Three weeks after taking office, President Trump did denounce hate crimes in his address to Congress.

"We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of it's very ugly forms," said Trump.

But is the damage done?

"We've reached a stage where some of our sisters and our mothers and our wive and daughters are afraid to go out on their own," said Hassan. "Simply because people may say something or do something."

The Islamic Society of Sarasota-Bradenton hasn't experienced a bomb threat or vandalism. In fact, it's been the opposite.

"People phone us and left messages on our voicemail, and spoken to the Imam, and told him that 'we support you, and we know you are going through a tough patch, and if you need anything let us know," said Hassan.

Through different outreach programs and an annual food festival at the Mosque, the society fights fear with education.

"Many people have never been in a mosque, met a Muslim person, spoken to them," said Hassan.

History shows the Jewish people will persevere, but Churgel admits he's being tested.

"It's hard. It's very hard in this situation. I want to see that things are going to progress, but we have such polarization right now in congress."