To combat the increasing manifestations of hatred in our country — and, sadly, in our own community — we must be both creative and proactive. We also must model the unity we are looking to create.
With that in mind, Michael Cohen of Englewood, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s eastern region director, approached leaders of the Englewood school system and the wider community, suggesting that they plan an event spotlighting the issue.
Mr. Cohen, who is an Englewood city councilman, said that “one of the core missions of the Wiesenthal Center is to combat hate and to build tolerance among communities.” In the wake of an anti-Semitic and racist incident at the Dwight Englewood School in March, “I recognized that we had a unique opportunity — due to our relationships with several speakers — to create a program that would bring together various parts of the Englewood and Bergen County communities to teach the next generation that we need to work together.”
The program, held March 26, brought together more than 100 high school juniors and seniors from both the Englewood public school system and the Frisch School in Paramus at a community event co-sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Bergen County NAACP, the Bergen County National Urban League, and Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton.
The day included “two incredible speakers, addressing anti-Semitism and racism from the vantage point of unquestionable credibility,” Mr. Cohen said. One of them was TM Garret, who had been a member and then a leader of white supremacist and KKK-affiliated groups in Germany; he left these movements and founded C.H.A.N.G.E, a nonprofit Memphis-based organization that engages communities in anti-racist and anti-violence campaigns.
Dwania Kyles joined Mr. Garret as a speaker. She is an original member of the Memphis 13, the group of first-grade students who integrated the Memphis school system in 1961, after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. According to Mr. Cohen, Ms. Kyles’ family was known to be closely associated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and the civil rights leader was expected at the family’s home for dinner on the evening that he was assassinated.
“Once the speakers agreed to come, which they did instantaneously, we worked to bring together a host of players who would demonstrate not only their commitment to combating hate and preparing the next generation, but also show the high-schoolers a message of unity,” Mr. Cohen said. “As the adage says, ‘show, don’t tell.’”
The Wiesenthal Center partners frequently with the NAACP and the Urban League, Mr. Cohen added. When he began to put the program together, he reached out to Sheriff Cureton, a past president of the Bergen County NAACP, “because we have a good relationship and have tried to work together on these issues for years. I’m always impressed by him.
“When we had the incidents of anti-Semitism in Mahwah, he was then president of the NAACP of Bergen County. On his own accord, he reached out. When I said, why don’t you come to a Mahwah council meeting, he came to the next meeting with two of his executive board members. He observed it, said he was disgusted by what he heard, and spoke up as well.
“He had the courage to do that and the foresight to reach out across communal lines. We’re lucky to have him as our sheriff.”
For his part, Sheriff Cureton said it was “critical” that the March 26 program was co-sponsored by such a variety of organizations, providing a model of unity for the students. “The speakers were phenomenal,” he added. “The students had a lot of questions.” He noted, however, that it is important for the discussion to continue. “We need to be more proactive,” he said. “Discussions such as this should be regular.” He said he hopes the gathering “encouraged these students to speak up and speak out against hatred and bigotry.”
Mr. Cohen said he runs a variety of programs for local schools. “Last year we had a program on combating digital hate, where we taught junior high and high school kids how to identify and be active in eradicating hate speech, bullying, and terrorist speech on social media and gaming systems. We had one with Frisch tenth graders and one with Moriah’s seventh grade. We were supposed to go to the Englewood public schools, but there was a snowstorm. We also held a big conference with a host of high school regional leaders” to help them when they get to college.
Frisch senior Andy Katz of New Rochelle, N.Y., who volunteered to attend the program, said “Although I wasn’t expecting anything specific, I went with the mindset that there would be an interesting dialogue between two people of such differing backgrounds. I believed that I could learn, just from listening to what they had to say.”
As it happens, he did learn quite a bit. “I learned that … in order to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and all hate, one needs to have love in their heart. If one goes in with preconceived notions, there will be no chance to grow, and to understand others. Additionally, I learned that even today there is segregation within our public school system, and that Bergen County — and New Jersey as a whole — has one of the most segregated school systems in the nation.”
Such meetings are important, he said. “I think it was an important gathering, in the sense that it brought together the Bergen County community as a whole. I would encourage more events of a similar nature, and recommend that others attend. The event really highlighted the situation in our public schools.
“Each of the speakers spoke from the heart,” he continued. “They explained how they came to this point, and what they hoped for the future. Each one had their own flair, and in a sense, form of inspiration. They were charismatic and moving. I would not call them inspirational but I would call them eye-opening. They allowed me to see different points of view of the world that I had never thought about before.
“It was extremely valuable to see the different groups coming together. Seeing the community join together to combat hate is what we need. The only way to defeat our problems is to work together.”