Thursday, August 13, 2020

True Story: I'm on an ISIS Hit List

Note: This story was original published on Medium in February 2019. I don't know why I chose to post it there instead of here, but I did. But now, I want to share it here, where people know me best. Can't wait to hear what you think about this one, friends!

When I was a kid, I wanted to be one thing: an artist. As I got older, this “future me” strove to be a photographer, poet, copy editor, and, ultimately, a writer.

Of course, one thing I never followed up “When I grow up I want to be …” with was “A target on an ISIS hit list.”

I’ve been an online blogger since the dark ages of LiveJournal, parlaying my love of storytelling into a blog back in the mid-2000s focused on my journey into and through Judaism. Yes, I’m a small-town girl from southern Missouri whose family relocated to Nebraska during my formative years. I went to and graduated from a Midwestern school, converted to Reform Judaism in 2006, and then I lived here, there, and everywhere around the U.S. Several years later, I converted to Orthodox Judaism, got a Master’s degree, got married, got divorced, moved to Israel, got married again, had a kid, moved back to the U.S., had another kid … you get the idea.

And all of this? It’s online. My life is quite literally an open website. I’ve always been an early adopter, and every digital space I find online is a medium for me to share my story — not for selfish reasons, but because I’ve found that my voice gives other converts a voice and I’ve got hundreds of outreach emails from people around the globe to prove it. I used to speak on panels, make good lists like “Top XX Jewish Women on XX,” and be the go-to for all things Jewish and social media on the web. I lament that my days are now filled with poopy diapers and scut jobs needed to pay the bills, but my digital life is still very much active.

My truth is that I have nothing to hide, so I don’t have to hide. The government can pop my laptop camera (or microwave, of course) on and watch me if they feel like it, because everything in my life is safe, legal, open.

But let’s be honest. What you see out there in TV land is the “Candyland version” of my life (props to Rivka Malka Perlman for this concept). Although I like to think that everyone sees and experiences my life exactly as it is, that’s not the truth. It’s not even close to the truth.

So here I am, one year out from an incident that shook me to my core and made me question everything I thought I knew about being a super-public Jewish blogging mommy, and I still haven’t written about it — until now.

I usually leave my house in the morning, because if I attempt to do my various contract jobs from home my day becomes all about the laundry, the dishes, the cucumbers and potatoes embedded in the carpet, the filthy fish tank, and all of the things that distract a working mother from, well, working. But one day last summer when my baby was still a newborn, I came home mid-day for something, I don’t even remember what, and found a business card stuck in the iron screen door of our small home.

I plucked the card out, and it was just a blank card, with the handwritten words, “Please Call Me” and an arrow. I turned the card over and saw that it was from an FBI Task Force Officer. My first inclination was that someone was playing a joke on me, because the shiny gold seal looked absolutely fake as can be.

Me being me, I Googled the information on the card, half expecting to get a dozen links about some prank or phishing scheme.

The officer on the card was real.

My next inclination was that they obviously wanted to talk to my husband my husband, the British-Israeli Green Card holder, for some kind of immigration hangup. He had, after all, gotten stuck outside the country from October 2014 to July 2015 thanks to the bureaucratic mess that is immigration.

I sent my husband a text with a picture of the front and back of the business card and suggested he call the number because, it only made sense, they needed to talk to him.

A few seconds later, he texted me back: “They want to talk to you.”

Me being me, again, began to panic. I couldn’t fathom what the FBI would need from me, and then my husband followed up with, “A threat has been made.”

I started racking my brain. I thought about all of the online spaces where people bashed me, devoted entire threads of forums to talking trash about me and my life choices, and wondering if one of the trolls had actually turned into violent. But these were just anonymous whackjobs hiding behind their PCs in Suburbia, not the type to elicit a response from the FBI. Right?

my husband told the officer he could come over and then he came home from work because I was, understandably, a bit panicked. When the officer arrived, he came in, sat down, and got to it.

“You’re on an ISIS hit list.”

In a fog of WTF is happening to my life, the officer went on to tell me how easy it was to find me, physically, that day, despite the fact that my divorced name was on the list. The officer also said that there are a lot of these lists and that I don’t really need to panic. Not too much, the officer said. The list, I was told, was geared toward lone wolfs, extremists who want to do their individual part by knocking off a single person — me.

When I asked how I ended up on a list, the officer didn’t have a great answer. Was it because I’m Jewish? A blogger? On Twitter?

The officer left, saying that if we see anything suspicious or alarming, to be in touch with him immediately. He also reminded us that we had a good friend in the community at the FBI (“I should have just asked him where to find you, it would have been even quicker!”), and that we were in good hands.

So. There I was, in my single-family starter home, counting down the moments until I needed to pick kids up from daycare, wondering when I was going to get assassinated in the name of a Holy War I really don’t understand.

I reached out to the local ADL, just so they’d know they had an ISIS hit list member in their midst. The response I got: “There has not yet been a case of violence resulting from any of these lists, but it is very important for everyone to be smart, alert and vigilant.”

Even my rabbi seemed unphased. My neighbors, on the other hand, asked if they should relocate, move, perhaps go into witness protection. I think they were half joking (they have a dog named ISIS, which made for some fun jokes), but maybe they weren’t. Who wants to be associated with someone potentially in the crosshairs of a militant terrorist group?

I basically spent the next two months being completely irrational and paranoid. There was one day where someone came to my door that I didn’t recognize, so I hid and called my husband, who told me to call the FBI. The person outside the door started to peek in the windows of my home and I was pretty sure he was an operative sent to end it all. I felt silly calling the FBI about it, so my husband came home from work quickly and when I re-described the person outside the house to him he quickly said, “Oh, that’s our new neighbor! Maybe he lost something over the fence?”

I genuinely thought I was losing my mind.

Every time I’d be walking across an intersection and a cab driver was edging slowly into the intersection I was convinced that he or she was sent by ISIS to commit vehicular manslaughter. I realize now, outside the fog of irrational shock, that assuming every cab driver is either Muslim or an ISIS operative is pretty crazy. Probably racist, too. Being on an ISIS hit list was making me a paranoid racist who was losing her mind.

The worst part about it all was that I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t tell anyone except my immediate family, my rabbi, my kids’ daycare director, and our neighbors. It wasn’t safe to write about it, to talk about it. And writing about it was my natural form of self-therapy. Storytelling is my drug.

And then? I woke up one day and had all but forgotten about it. Most days, I don’t even think about it. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not likely to be tagged and bagged by a lone wolf out to fulfill his ISIS mission. There has to be a statistical analysis of the likelihood, doesn’t there?

But every now and again, the fear and paranoia sneaks up on me. Sometimes, like this week, when I open Twitter and I’m being trolled by a “Muslim cleric” who liks approximately 30 of my Tweets in quick succession, I start to fear for myself, my husband, my kids. I fall down the rabbit hole Googling the name, location, trying to figure out if it’s a credible threat or just a zealous Twitter user showing me some legitimate love.

Last week I got a series of emails from someone trying to “meet up” with me to discuss something. They even called me, although I don’t know how they got my number. Luckily, I hate talking on the phone and never answer. I Googled the name, the email address, any identifying information, and what came up was not what the email sender provided and I began to panic again. I cut off communication and am hoping it wasn’t a legitimate request to meetup that could help me make millions.

At this point in my life, I can’t hide. What I’ve put out on the web is there for all eternity. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t delete even a single step in my digital footprint, just like I can’t delete my name from that looming ISIS hit list.

And I know what the comments will say: “You’re crazy! You’re writing about it? Now they’re going to find you!”

Storytelling is my drug, remember? My reality is that, for better or worse, the only way to overcome being on an ISIS hit list is to write about it.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

It Begins Again

As I sit and await Shabbat’s arrival I find myself filled with exhaustion and frustration. I’m asking myself why we are bringing in another Shabbat without a Temple in Jerusalem, without Mashiach, without the safety and serenity that comes along with knowing we as a people finally got it right. 

I really want to reread The Princess of Dan, but I feel like it’s just going to make me sad and fill me with longing and even more frustration. I want to experience the potential and possibility but not the frustration that we aren’t there yet. 

So, I’m bringing in Shabbat again and hoping I find the mental and emotional space to step back and find some peace and hope. 

And, here’s to more regular blogging here. It’s been far, far too long. Shabbat shalom!