Calming tension while promoting unity

Calming tension while promoting unity

Bergen County Jewish Action Committee mobilizes in wake of Teaneck incidents

BCJAC leaders, from left: executive committee members Yigal Gross of Congregation Arzei Darom and Chana Shields of Keter Torah, vice president Rachel Cyrulnik of Ohr Saadya, and president Emma Horowitz of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.
BCJAC leaders, from left: executive committee members Yigal Gross of Congregation Arzei Darom and Chana Shields of Keter Torah, vice president Rachel Cyrulnik of Ohr Saadya, and president Emma Horowitz of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

As the Jewish Standard reported on December 22, Teaneck School Superintendent Dr. Andre Spencer failed to condemn an antisemitic speech delivered during a public comment session at the Board of Education’s meeting on December 13.

The meeting came in the aftermath of Dr. Spencer’s decision to host a pro-Palestinian rally at Teaneck High School during school hours on November 29. At that rally, students chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — code words for the destruction of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of its Jewish citizens.

Many Jewish attendees walked out of the school board meeting during a two-minute antisemitic rant by a speaker from Englewood — which the board president did not curtail or condemn — accusing Jews of perpetrating a genocide in the Caribbean and referring to Jews as members of the “synagogue of Satan.”

To say the least, this was not the outcome for which members of the Bergen County Jewish Action Committee had hoped.

This social welfare organization was formed by Teaneck residents after the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7 and the consequent war sparked anti-Jewish and anti-Israel outbursts by attendees of meetings at the town council and board of education.

BCJAC President Emma Horowitz said the organization aimed “to lower the temperature and help our community channel justifiable anger into constructive criticism and a unifying message” before the December 13 meeting.

“BCJAC even sent a letter to the board and the superintendent in advance of the meeting with a list of suggestions to make the meeting safe, respectful, and inclusive for all participants,” she said. “We offered to work together with them in good faith to implement such guidelines.”

Instead, BCJAC executive committee member Chana Shields said, “What we came to protest — the board’s tolerance of hate — was on full display at the meeting itself.”

Now that neither the board nor the superintendent have heeded calls from the BCJAC and local rabbis to speak out against the antisemitic hate speech at either the student rally or the meeting, “This is now about a school district’s shocking tolerance of wholesale racism and incitement,” Ms. Shields said.

The BCJAC’s founding mission is to advance the interests of the Jewish community by encouraging engagement in the community, public service, and political and policy advocacy around local elections and elected officials “to ensure that our government representatives have zero tolerance for antisemitism and bigotry of all kinds.”

Ms. Horowitz, a member of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, said the BCJAC executive committee is composed of members of several Orthodox Teaneck synagogues.

However, she and vice president Rachel Cyrulnik emphasized that members of all denominations are welcome to join. They hope to leverage what they achieve in Teaneck to serve other Bergen County Jewish communities in the future.

“We are volunteers with diverse professional backgrounds and skills,” Ms. Cyrulnik said. “We send our kids to different schools, we are different ages, and we have varying opinions on political and religious issues.

“What brings us together is a shared commitment to advocating on behalf of the local Jewish community and an understanding that all Jews, regardless of affiliation, have a shared destiny and mutual responsibility.”

The BCJAC, they said, will “advocate for the interests of Bergen County’s Jewish community, which is strongest when we are all united.

“We seek to bring together the broader community by addressing key issues upon which we can all agree — such as combating antisemitism — and build on these commonalities.

“And that requires us to be nimble, resourceful, responsible, and thoughtful, because our landscape is constantly changing.”

In response to what happened at Teaneck High School, the BCJAC helped organize a peaceful rally on Teaneck’s Municipal Green to support Jewish students at the high school  — whose principal was removed last week, for reasons that were said to be unrelated to this issue — and express outrage at the use of municipal property for hate speech.

“We are deeply proud of our community’s response,” Ms. Horowitz said. “Over 1,000 community members from across the religious and political spectrum came out on a chilly night to show strength and support when our community needed it most.”

The group is now developing educational programming to provide community members of all ages with advocacy tools. This effort will include mini-sessions for community members who are unfamiliar with public speaking at local meetings, a series to teach Israeli history “in a fun and engaging way,” and an initiative to engage with voters.

“We hope that these events will empower people to respond to common accusations against Israel in the various places we have been encountering them — social media, the workplace, and in schools,” Ms. Horowitz and Ms. Cyrulnik wrote in an email.

“We want to help people become educated on the issues of the day, and we also believe in the importance of educating the broader community, especially in a time when so much disinformation about Jews and Israel is presented as established fact in the public sphere. We welcome the community’s input and involvement.”

Ms. Horowitz said that during these past few weeks “we have been working around the clock hand-in-hand with community members, organizations, and leaders to mobilize Teaneck’s Jewish community to take action on a number of pressing communal issues.”

One of those issues is a series of pro-Palestinian events “flooding” Teaneck. This term, Ms. Horowitz explained, “is a dog whistle. The name used for the atrocities of October 7 is the Al Aqsa Flood, and the use of this verb is highly intentional.”

She said that “attempts to destabilize our community and make us feel insecure are occurring on a regular basis and we are doing our best to give our community strength and keep the peace.”

Ms. Horowitz, who teaches at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, stressed that the BCJAC recognizes that “the Jewish population is ideologically, politically, and religiously diverse, and we have a responsibility to engage with as many of them as we can to ensure their voices are heard and represented. That requires managing the natural tension between two competing values: diversity and unity. Achieving both is the perpetual challenge inherent in being a community, and a large part of our work will be attempting to understand, represent, and unify people with disparate opinions as best as we possibly can.”

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