‘One of the most evil symbols of hate’

‘One of the most evil symbols of hate’

In response to swastika found in Ridgewood school, federation to focus on security, anti-bias training

Jason Shames, left, Rabbi David Fine, and Abigail Miller
Jason Shames, left, Rabbi David Fine, and Abigail Miller

Next month, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey will hold an anti-bias workshop for teachers. (See box.) This comes in partial response to the discovery of a swastika and a star of David in the stall of a girls’ bathroom in Ridgewood High School on Chanukah.

And it comes as the federation is hiring its first community security director.

“With the rise in anti-Semitic activity here in northern New Jersey, it is imperative that we focus on the safety and security of our 125,000 Jews,” Jason Shames, the federation’s executive director, said. “This position will ensure Jewish communal safety by focusing on incident response and developing individual institution- and community-wide plans through training, risk mitigation, relationships with law enforcement, and access to other government resources.”

Mr. Shames said that graffiti should not be minimized as a low-level threat.

“At its core, the swastika is one of the most evil symbols of hate for the Jewish people,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of swastika activity by juveniles. It’s very concerning. Each incident has to be handled with the utmost urgency and discretion.”

He said that the federation is working closely with law enforcement, both in Ridgewood and at the county level.

“We had a meeting with the superintendent at the school,” he said. “We had a security summit for the community which drew a hundred people.”

The new federation security official, who Mr. Shames hopes to hire by the end of the month, will become the liaison with law enforcement and will work with synagogues and other community institutions on security issues.

And in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, Mr. Shames sees the need for the security director to draw up a community crisis plan, “a blueprint for how we would act and go about our business.”

Rabbi David Fine leads Ridgewood’s Temple Israel. He said the swastika in the local high school “reflects a growing spread of anti-Semitic imagery and vandalism that we’ve seen spreading through the country, of which Pittsburgh was the worst example.”

He praised the response of Ridgewood’s schools superintendent, Daniel Fishbein, who reported on the incident, which he called “shocking and disturbing,” in a letter to the community.

“It’s all been taken very seriously,” Rabbi Fine said.

Rabbi Fine said his congregation has “increased our security protocols, as I believe most of the Jewish institutions in the area have done. We remain vigilant. We are grateful for the good working relationship with the police, with the village, with the schools administration.

“This type of vandalism is disturbing. It needs to be watched. I hope we won’t be dealing with anything worse than that. No doubt the overwhelming sense of the public is outrage and horror at these spreading expressions of hate and intolerance.

“Presumably it was a high school kid. You see inappropriate things scribbled in high school bathrooms a lot. But it’s not always hateful against groups that are represented by members of the student body. That’s what makes it more disturbing. It’s not the first time we saw anti-Semitic expressions written on the walls of school property. I don’t necessarily expect it will be the last. On the one hand, we don’t want to overreact, to reward and celebritize the student who did it. At the same time, we have to make it clear that it crosses a line that can’t be tolerated.

“It’s one thing when you read about anti-Semitic outbreaks in other places. When it’s in your own hometown, the lesson is there’s no place we can imagine ourselves in a bubble where we are safe from this hatred.”

Abigail Miller is director of education at Rockland County’s Holocaust Museum and Center in Suffern, N.Y., for Tolerance and Education. She will be leading the February anti-bias workshop at the federation.

“It’s one of our most popular and important trainings,” she said. “We want to encourage teachers and educators to take seriously the issue of diversifying classroom materials, voices, and the ideas they’re bringing to students, as well as unpacking their own unconscious bias and racism. How do our own beliefs and attitudes, whether conscious or unconscious, affect our students?

“This presentation came about in a reactionary sort of way, responding to unfortunate incidents of bias and discrimination that had already happened,” she continued. “As a Holocaust center, we received a lot of calls from schools over the past couple years that had anti-Semitic incidents.”

The center, at Rockland Community College, is a resource for, Bergen, Rockland, and Orange counties.

Ms. Miller said the history of the Holocaust is a key component of the training. “We speak about how it’s possible for political waves or movements to capitalize on people’s unconscious bias,” she said. “There’s always a possibility that if we don’t check our biases, if we aren’t working to create a sense of social justice and a moral compass to stand up against bias and racism, if we don’t have that sense of urgency with us, it’s easy to get swept along in the current, as happened in Germany in the 1930s. We talk about the power and influence of teachers, and the role of teachers in Germany in making sure children were indoctrinated in Nazi ideology.”

She said swastikas in a school should be taken seriously.

“Any kind of hate-based speech on campus creates a hostile environment for all students. It’s easy to wave this off as childish behavior. Often students don’t think seriously about these things. We have to contextualize and educate both students and teachers about the history of the symbols and what they mean.

“If we treat it as no big deal, what kind of message does that send to our young people? We want to amp up the education on what these symbols mean. We want to bring an empathetic component of this to students and educators, to help them understand why it is so important to respond to these kinds of events.”

What: Open Heart and Mind: Softening Bias and Racism
in Ourselves and Our Teaching

When: February 6, 4:30 — 6:00 p.m.

Where: Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey
50 Eisenhower Drive, Paramus

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