When for-sale signs on Monsey-area homes are defaced with “No Jews” graffiti; when spray-painted swastikas appear on trees in a park in New City; when posts on a Clarkstown residents’ Facebook group accuse “certain people” of ruining property values; and especially when schoolchildren are the target of hate speech and social-media harassment, the Jewish residents of Rockland County understandably are distressed.
As CEO of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County, Gary Siepser also is distressed, and he considers it his responsibility to initiate a response.
“Hate is prevalent in the county and it manifests itself in different ways,” he said. “Our approach is ‘How can we help?’”
A year and a half ago, the county executive appointed Mr. Siepser to be a member of the Rockland Human Rights Commission. One of the topics on the agenda at the commission’s regular meeting last month was the uptick in hate incidents in Rockland County.
About one-third of the county’s 328,000 residents identify as Jewish. “This is one of the most diverse counties in the state, and our concerns are mainly in the public-education system,” Mr. Siepser said.
“Among high school kids especially, every ill of society gets manifested, whether bullying or antisemitism or homophobia. We need to address the situation.
“One of the things we have done is to meet with superintendents of schools every year, because they’re on the frontlines. They see what is happening in their schools and are desirous of building a student body that is tolerant and knowledgeable. We support that effort in any way we can.
“The most important result of these meetings is keeping the lines of communication open. If I get a report from a parent about something that happened in school I know whom to contact, and I have a cordial relationship with everybody. The resources of the Human Rights Commission are made available to the superintendents.”
One of the superintendents with whom Mr. Siepser has forged a close working relationship is Robert Pritchard of the South Orangetown Central School District.
Three months after Mr. Siepser began his work as CEO in January 2016, Tappan Zee High School in that district staged a production of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” which includes a parody of a Nazi dance number called “Springtime for Hitler.” The auditorium’s stage therefore was festooned with swastika banners during the play rehearsal period, and when other groups came to use the auditorium — including students in a driver’s education course — the sight caused some alarm and led to a contentious Facebook conversation among residents. Dr. Pritchard worked with school administrators to ensure the banners were removed, and he went to the school to discuss the episode with students.
In a phone interview last week, Dr. Pritchard said that prevention is the critical aspect of countering prejudice in his district’s two elementary and two secondary schools. The majority of the roughly 3,000 students there are white Christians; there is also “a significant Jewish population” and Muslim, Hindu, and even Zoroastrian students.
Prevention efforts focus on influencing both culture and climate, Dr. Pritchard said. “Whenever any of our students is exposed to hate and/or bias at school, it reflects what we think is the broader culture, and we have an obligation to address that component through our curriculum.”
Tolerance, respect, empathy, and kindness education kindergarten through twelfth grade is enhanced with digital literacy sessions about hate speech on social media. “We help students know how to process what is real and what is not real, because digital information has a profound effect on our students’ lives and how they perceive the world,” Dr. Pritchard said.
The district has implemented programming from organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project; Facing History and Ourselves, which helps social-studies teachers foster productive classroom dialogue on prejudice and injustice; and the Butterfly Project, which uses the Holocaust as a springboard to educate about the dangers of hatred and bigotry and to cultivate empathy and social responsibility.
Last year, the Rockland JCC honored the district’s executive director for student services, Karen Tesik, as one of four community members making a difference in the quality of life in Rockland County.
In her previous position as principal of the South Orangetown Middle School, Dr. Tesik was instrumental in supporting a student-led initiative three years ago to bring in The Butterfly Project. The core of the project is having students paint ceramic butterflies for permanent display to symbolize hope and to memorialize children murdered in the Holocaust. “We believe project-based learning creates a lasting learning impact,” Dr. Tesik said.
Among other Holocaust-related initiatives she has brought to the district is the Living Voices theater troupe, which performs a play about friendship and survival told from the viewpoint of Anne Frank’s fictional best friend. The play is geared to children in fifth grade and older.
Survivor testimonies and field trips are part of the effort as well. “We discovered that only a short drive from the middle school and high school there is a manmade pond in honor of people killed in the Holocaust for being disabled,” Dr. Tesik said.
Dr. Pritchard said the district plans to place prevention counselors in each school, to monitor and control the climate there. “We intend to have social workers help our school administrators deal with bias and hatred crises as they occur,” he said. “These incidents are often very emotional, and any student confronted about his or her cultural or ethnic background or lifestyle will have a safe place in school to go and talk about it in a constructive way.”
Dr. Tesik added that all students are educated about the New York State Dignity for All Students Act, which “seeks to provide the state’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.”
DASA defines hate as an attack based on culture, religion, physical features, sexuality, or intellectual ability.
“We have DASA coordinators who set a tone of taking responsibility for actions,” she said. “If something happens that falls into the DASA classification, the aggressor is subject to a code of consequences ranging from parent conference to expulsion. And both the aggressor and the victim get counseling. We have a relationship with local religious-education providers we can call in when needed.”
Dr. Pritchard said that various mechanisms are available to students exposed to acts of hate because victim responses differ. Some victims become aggressive themselves, “so we need to direct the response in a productive way. But some students are quiet victims and are unable to express themselves, so we’ve put together an anonymous alerts program where they can send reports on acts of hatred and bias through a web-based software application.”
Another valuable resource for all area schools comes from the Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education, which is based at Rockland Community College in Suffern.
“The federation funds programs through the museum geared to developing curriculum and teacher training,” Mr. Siepser said.
“Whenever an anti-Semitic act is reported, we respond with education,” Andrea Winograd, the museum’s executive director, said. “Last year a school district approached us about diversity training for its full staff, including support staff, because a group of students overheard a school-district employee make an anti-Semitic comment outside of the school environment. The students brought it to the attention of administrators and both they and the district took it very seriously. We came in and gave a one-hour session for the whole district.”
Most of the museum’s educational work is done proactively, however, through programming at schools in Orange, Bergen, Ulster, Rockland, and parts of Westchester and Sullivan counties. “One of our most productive educational tools is for teachers,” Ms. Winograd said.
“We do go into classrooms as well, but that way you only get 30 kids per class. For every teacher that you educate, you reach a vast amount of students. Teachers have a great deal of power to influence their students and we’re here to help them provide a moral component to the education,” she explained.
Teachers also are guided in examining their own biases, and they learn about the role teachers played in indoctrinating Nazi ideology in pre-war German classrooms.
“We teach everything through the lens of the Holocaust but we focus on racism and other forms of bias,” Ms. Winograd said. “And we don’t just train and leave; we have ongoing relationships with the schools and teachers. Abigail Miller, our director of education and historian in residence, is available for phone calls and emails any time.”
Ms. Miller also works one-on-one with people convicted of anti-Semitic hate crimes before, during, and after their incarceration. “It is very powerful to sit with these individuals and try to understand why they did what they did and for them to understand the context and history of antisemitism,” she said.
“It’s a very meaningful and rewarding experience to open their minds to new levels of empathy, and opportunities to bring them into contact with Holocaust survivors. Those meetings are a big part of the reeducation process.”
Ms. Winograd said that this program has seen some remarkable successes. “We believe in education over condemnation. We are not going to eradicate hate, but we can move the needle a little on people’s moral compass and I do see some softening of stances.”
She noted that although Anti-Defamation League data “shows that nationwide we have a lot to worry about, we are making strides locally.”
“Statistically, nobody knows the number of incidents by month or year in our county, but we know that the level of hateful behavior in the United States is significant,” Mr. Siepser said.
One of his priorities is to make sure Jewish residents of the county do not feel alone in the face of hate speech and actions. “Seeing swastikas on trees in the park can make you feel alone and isolated,” he said. “So this is one of the most important things we do.
“I am very grateful to be able to work with other professionals in this county who are passionate about building a society where everyone is respected for who they are.”