|Rabbi Nosson Schuman brings an interfaith service to a close with a song whose translation is, “The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all!” Larry Yudelson|
With the Jewish communities of Bergen County on heightened alert, some 200 religious and community leaders gathered on Jan. 12 to discuss the recent string of anti-Semitic incidents in the county with law enforcement and government officials.
The meeting followed by one day the most recent, and most serious, attack – a firebombing that could have claimed the lives of eight people. The incident targeted the old Queen Anne building in Rutherford that houses Orthodox Congregation Beth El, as well as the home of its rabbi and his family. Five of the eight potential victims were children.
The community meeting was held at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey under the joint auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Synagogue Leadership Initiative.
Two nights later – on Jan. 14, immediately following Shabbat – hundreds of people gathered in the gymnasium of a Catholic college in Rutherford to show support for Rabbi Nosson Schuman and Congregation Beth El. Schuman suffered mild burns while extinguishing the fire early Wednesday, but on Saturday night he held and strummed a guitar as he sat with his family and area clergy in an arc of folding chairs facing the packed gymnasium bleachers.
The Rutherford attack was the fourth aimed at the Jewish community since mid-December. The earlier incidents occurred at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood on Dec. 11 and the Conservative Temple Beth El in Hackensack on Dec. 21. Both involved spray-painted Nazi symbols.
On Jan. 3, a small fire was set at the Orthodox Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Paramus. The attack on Congregation Beth El occurred one week later. All of the attacks took place in the early morning hours. All but the first occurred on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.
Tension has mounted as the incidents have escalated. The Rutherford attack nearly had tragic consequences: Schuman’s family – his wife, their five children, and Schuman’s father – were asleep in the building.
Because of the use of a firebomb directed at a religious institution, both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives have joined local law enforcement agencies in investigating the incidents.
“I knew there were people who hated me,” Schuman told a packed press conference following last Thursday’s JCRC/SLI meeting. But, he added, he also drew solace from the outpouring of interfaith support. “What I see is the beauty of the American people,” he said.
That beauty was much in evidence Saturday evening. The program mixed the songs of the late Shlomo Carlebach with Christian hymns, and included heartfelt remarks by Christian and Muslim clergy, politicians, and residents of Rutherford. Some told The Jewish Standard that they were both shocked and insulted that hate had come to their town.
Only a small number of those within the gymnasium were wearing yarmulkes (Shabbat had ended less than a half-hour before the meeting began). Several nuns in habits, members of the Franciscan order that sponsors the college, sat in the first row of the bleachers.
Rutherford resident Joe Egan identified himself as “a lifer in this town.” He recalled playing basketball in the synagogue as a child. “We came together as kids of different faiths to just live and be ourselves,” he said, noting that he was surprised and offended that the community’s synagogue could be attacked.
Pastor Gregory Jackson of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack quoted the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “The only thing that will allow the voices of evil to win is for the voices of goodness to do nothing.” King’s birthday, a national holiday, was marked on Monday.
Said Jackson, “We will not allow evil to win in our communities.”
Rabbi Noam Marans, a Bergen county resident and director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee, told the gathering, “As difficult as this moment is, it’s also a moment of great pride. I’m proud of the fact that the interfaith community comes together as it always does.”
Rev. Gregory Rupright, pastor of the Rutherford Congregational Church, said, “Tonight all these faiths and all these people show that we are dedicated to justice.” He led the group in singing “Shalom Chaverim” (“Hello friends”).
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez said he is “saddened by the sting of anti-Semitism” but told the gathering, “I’m going to leave tonight uplifted and with the belief that the children of light will overcome the children of darkness.”
Noting that he had fought for hate crime legislation when he served in the statehouse in Trenton, Menendez said, “I believe no law can be [as effective] as what we see tonight, a community coming together and saying, ‘We will not stand for these types of actions.'”
Addressing Rabbi Schuman, he said, “I am inspired by the way you’re reacting to it.”
There was much praise for the rabbi, as well, at the Thursday evening JCRC/SLI meeting, although the focus was more on reassuring the community.
At a post-meeting press conference, local government officials spoke of their determination to both solve the crimes and protect the Jewish communities of Bergen County. They reportedly made similar statements at the main meeting, which was closed to the media.
County Executive Kathleen Donovan told the press conference that the Office of the Bergen County Prosecutor was following some leads, but added, “That’s all that we can say” at this time.
As an immediate step, said Rep. Steve Rothman, police officials have promised to increase patrols around synagogues, although budget restraints do not allow officers to be stationed there around the clock.
“It doesn’t matter what your race is, what your religion is, you’re entitled to freedom – and there is no earthly reason why this kind of hatred at this point in time should be allowed to exist,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to be a victim,” Lautenberg said. “We have to stand together as Americans.”
The incidents were “out of character” for Bergen County, said Rothman, adding, “We will catch these individuals and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”
The press conference was an exercise in bipartisanship, as the podium was shared by Democrats Rothman (9th District) and Bill Pascrell (8th District) – who are expected to face off in a Democratic primary in June resulting from a recently announced redistricting plan – and Republican Scott Garrett (5th District).
Pascrell called the meeting “momentous,” but added that “talk is not going to solve this.” He cited the need for security equipment, such as surveillance cameras and entry card devices, and said he regretted the fact that given the current climate in Washington, there is not much federal aid available. He attributed this to the fact that conservative politicians are seeking to cut millions of dollars in federal aid.
Still, he said, that would not stop him from trying.
“The attack on the rabbi was an attack on me,” Pascrell said. “We are not going to balance the budget on the backs of our neighbors.”
Garrett, one of the Capitol’s most aggressive budget-cutters – whose share of Bergen County will increase next year to include a significant portion of Jewish enclaves such as Teaneck and Fair Lawn – called it “profoundly important” that people come together. Citing the unity displayed after the incidents, he said the JCRC/SLI meeting was not a symptom of what is wrong with the community “but what is right.”
The speakers called the firebomb attack a life-and-death escalation of the incidents.
Donovan said security measures take place on two levels. Items such as surveillance cameras, key card entry systems, and lighting are critical, she said. But she also stressed basic procedures such as locking the door and being aware of the people around you, repeating the “See something, say something” reminder that has become a post-9/11 mantra. Police welcome any bits of information, she said, no matter how trivial they may seem.
In assessing the meeting, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, JCRC chairman, said that attendees took away ideas for heightened security at their institutions, and law enforcement officials had a better understanding of the depth of concern in the Jewish community.
In his closing remarks on Saturday night, Schuman said, “Maybe this was the wake-up call we needed to work for unity.”
Leading the interfaith group in a final song – whose words are attributed to Rav Nachman of Bratislav (Breslov) ““ the rabbi distributed handouts with the Hebrew lyrics and translation.
Together, the group sang, “Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar mi’od, v’ha’ikar lo l’facheyd k’lal. The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all!”