Civil veneer cracks again in Teaneck

Civil veneer cracks again in Teaneck

Town council erupts as rage over Hamas and Gaza focuses on synagogue program

The township’s business is done here, in Teaneck’s municipal building.
The township’s business is done here, in Teaneck’s municipal building.

Teaneck’s town council meetings, at least in theory but until recently often in fact, are examples of democracy in action.

Yes, that sounds hokey, but those intensely local official gatherings allow people — mainly but not entirely Teaneck residents — to talk about what’s bothering them, to request local government services to which they feel entitled but believe they are not receiving, to thank local officials for their help, to share their concerns, and to create a community.

There always have been tensions under the surface, because this is real life, but Teaneck, with its many diverse groups, with both shared and divergent interests, has made it work.

But since October 7, that façade has cracked, anger has roiled, and the meetings seem to have become failed therapy groups, at least in their good and welfare segments.

Good and welfare — the name sounds ironic but it wasn’t intended that way — comes at the end of the meeting, when people are allotted three minutes to share their concerns, both in person or on Zoom. In theory, those concerns have to do with issues the council’s seven members can address.

In the meeting on February 27, many of the good and welfare comments were statements of rage at Israel for the war in Gaza, and about the pain Jews are feeling about the hatred directed at them. But that section of the meeting was dominated by the comments of Richard Siegel, who lives in Teaneck and identified himself as Jewish. Mr. Siegel attacked a meeting to be held at Congregation Keter Torah — he mangled the pronunciation but his meaning was clear — that “violates both domestic law and international law,” he said.

The event that disturbed him is a fair where vendors will display information about real estate in Israel. Similar fairs, held in space rented from shuls, as has been done here at Keter Torah, have been held in Teaneck, around the tristate area, and across the United States for years.

Mr. Siegel charged the fair with violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

That does not seem to be true, Joseph Kaplan of Teaneck said; he’s a retired lawyer and a member of Teaneck’s community relations advisory board. Leaving aside any discussion of whether buying real estate in Israel would be violating those acts, they seem not to apply to land sales outside the United States.

Mr. Siegel also accused the meeting’s organizers and Keter Torah of holding a public meeting from which members of the public would be barred because of their race or ethnicity — he said that it was open only to Jews. That’s not true, Mr. Kaplan said. It’s open to everyone who comes in good faith.

But the worst thing to happen at the meeting, he said, was when one of the council members, Denise Belcher, “took what Richard Siegel said at face value.

“I’m very concerned if any of our citizens of Teaneck cannotwalk into any event based upon their race, religion, nationality, or anything,” Ms. Belcher said at the meeting. “Everyone should be able to participate. There should not be any discrimination in any real estate sale. Not only … is it a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in 1968, but it also is a violation of the New Jersey law against discrimination.” She would have the township’s attorney look into those possible violations, she added.

“What Ms. Belcher said, had she said it in a vacuum, would have been fine,” Mr. Kaplan said. “We shouldn’t have a meeting that discriminates against anybody. We have statutes against that,” and well we should.

“But that is not true about this Israeli real estate fair. It’s open to anyone who wants to come in in good faith.”

There is some hope in Teaneck, Mr. Kaplan said. Cheryl Hall chairs the advisory committee he sits on, and he admires her work. “She is working very hard to calm things down.”

He talked about the divisive phrase “From the river to the sea.” “It’s a big, hot issue,” he said. “I believe that there are three groups who use the phrase. The first is the Hamas types, who want the destruction of Israel. The second is, I think, a small group of people who want a binational state. And then there’s a large group of people who have no idea what it means.” They’re the “What river? Which sea?” group.

“But Cheryl cut through that, with one of the most moral statements about it I’ve heard,” Mr. Kaplan continued. She said, ‘I am not sure what people who use it mean, but I know that it offends many of my Jewish neighbors. So why would any neighbor say something that they know is offensive to their neighbor? Why don’t they say it in another way?’

“It was a ray of sunshine,” Mr. Kaplan said.

Naomi Knopf of Teaneck is the chief impact officer at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“Teaneck is really in the middle of a very trying period right now,” she understated. She’s talking not only about the February 27 town council meeting, but other contentious town council and school board meetings, about marches and car-parade protests and demonstrations that result in an anger so intense that at times it nearly radiates off the township’s sidewalks.

That’s not accidental, Ms. Knopf said. Not only does Teaneck have an astounding range of ethnic and religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, “it’s also really easy to access, so it’s been targeted by outside agitators coming in and making a stand in a town with a large and highly visible Jewish community.”

Part of it is geographic, she said. “It’s very close to Paterson and Clifton, right off the bridge” — the George Washington — “and right off routes 4, 95, and 80. It offers a large, visible, and organized Jewish community, and targeting it is getting agitators airtime they couldn’t get elsewhere.”

That’s particularly sad given Teaneck’s history. “It has a long and strong history of very good intergroup relations,” she said. “It was the first town in the country to desegregate itself voluntarily. That’s why many people pick Teaneck to live in.

“That’s why we picked Teaneck. We moved here in 2003; we wanted our kids to grow up in a town so supportive of so many groups of people and with such a supportive Jewish community. It was a very nice mix. We moved into an incredibly diverse community.

“Outside agitators are coming in and hijacking the community,” she continued. “They are building on a national movement. People are not getting along the way they used to. They are creating division and distracting our local officials from what they should be doing.

“I think that the town has a choice,” she said. “It can create unity rather than give in to this divisive antisemite rhetoric that some people are harnessing for their own personal agendas.”

Ms. Knopf knows firsthand that unity is possible.

“I sat on the board of the Teaneck junior soccer league for six or seven years,” she said. “It was the best place to be! It brought together kids from every ethnicity and religion in the town. Everybody played together on the soccer field. We coached together, our kids hung out together, and the friendships went on for years and years as the kids grew up together.

“That’s something that Teaneck should be proud of and try to foster. I’m afraid that the rhetoric is taking away from the personal connections that people have, and the truth that they know is in people’s hearts.’

Speaking as both a Teaneck resident and a JFNNJ official, “the Jewish community can’t give in to being bullied or harassed or intimidated, and we can’t allow this kind of rhetoric and threat,” Ms. Knopf said. “What we’re seeing in Teaneck is a small microcosm of what will be playing out across the country.”

There’s much good going on in Teaneck now, she added. “Our law enforcement has been incredibly supportive of our community and keeping everybody safe.”

When they talk about the situation in Teaneck, online, in the good and welfare section of town council meetings, or in personal discussions, most members of the Jewish community thank the township’s police chief, Andrew McGurr, and its police officers, Teaneck’s town manager, Dean Kazinci, and the deputy town manager, Tom Rowe. Ms. Knopf joined in that chorus of gratitude.

“At some point, our communities have to stop and say that we need to live together peacefully with our neighbors,” she concluded. “We have to stop treating each other as Others. We have to respect each other and have respectful conversations even when we disagree.”

That seems basic, but it’s hard. Still, it’s a goal that’s still beckoning at least many members of the Teaneck community.

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