It’s possible that organizing a successful meeting to explore the dangers of hatred in a world teeming with opportunities to hate might seem to be too hard for novice organizers.
Drawing more than 300 people, on Zoom, to listen to a discussion supported by a range of local organizations and a prominent international one, and featuring the state’s attorney general, is an impressive feat.
Two Glen Rock women, Vivian Genn Pittman and Amy Handler, pulled it off. A week ago, the pair — friends since their now middle-school-age children were in nursery school together, and both members of the Glen Rock Jewish Center — watched as Scott Richman, the ADL’s New York/New Jersey regional director, interviewed Gurbir Grewal on hate and how to overcome it.
The panel grew out of the two women’s work getting their synagogue named as one of the ADL’s Signature Synagogues; the congregations in that partnership, which include quite a few in Essex, Union, and Morris counties as well as one in Rockland and others scattered across the rest of New Jersey, have direct access to the ADL’s resources and services, and in return host two programs a year, one aimed at adults and the other at teenagers.
Ms. Pittman’s parents live in Fort Lee, and her mother, Myra Herbst Genn, now a psychotherapist, was one of the few children from her Polish town to survive the Holocaust. She was a child then; the evil she saw and survived has driven her to talk and teach about hatred, and she’s passed that desire to fight hatred, along with her passion to belong to the Jewish community, to her daughter. So as Ms. Pittman, who is a vice president at GRJC, saw the rising levels of hatred around her, she talked about it with her friend, Ms. Handler, and the two decided to act.
“There were some incidents in the community, some anti-Semitic graffiti, and some things had happened in town throughout the years,” Ms. Pittman said. “So we had a meeting with the rabbi” — that’s Jennifer Schlosberg — “and we were discussing how we could try to educate the community about it,” Ms. Handler continued. They decided to work with the ADL — the international organization has strong local roots, and its mission dovetails with the two women’s.
Once the ADL accepted Glen Rock into Signature Synagogues, opening its resources to the shul and allowing Ms. Pittman and Ms. Handler to work directly with its staff, the two women had to decide what their inaugural programs should be. That task, like all similar ones undertaken in the last year, was heavily affected by the pandemic, which demanded that everything involving many people talking has to be done online. Still, it could have gone in many directions.
“We brainstormed,” Ms. Pittman said. “We tried to think about the best ways to reach the most people in the community. We could have done a program just for the Glen Rock Jewish Center. It could have been about different sects of Judaism. It could have been about the Holocaust. It could have been about so many things! We thought long and hard about different ways to connect, and Amy and I agreed that the best way to do that is to make it inclusive, and to form a team with other members of the community.”
Glen Rock is a small, close-knit town, the two women said; everybody pretty much knows, or at least knows someone who knows, just about everyone in town. So they fanned out from there — the local organizations, the state attorney general, who lives in Bergen County and represents the whole state, and the ADL, with its global reach.
They talked to the president and the board of the parents associations of the town’s middle and high schools. “They said that this is a fantastic idea, and that they could publicize it for us,” Ms. Pittman said. From there, they were connected to the elementary schools’ parent association, to the district superintendent, and to the district’s head of guidance.
The Glen Rock school district also belongs to the ADL’s No Place for Hate program — there had been isolated incidents of anti-Semitism, one of them affecting one of Ms. Pittman’s daughters, that made the program a good fit — so working with the district made perfect sense.
Next, they engaged other local organizations. Some were Jewish — the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the JCC of Northern New Jersey, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
They also worked with the Community Relations Advocacy Network, and with an organization called the Religious Communities of Glen Rock. Ms. Pittman has been involved with CRAN, as the network is called for short, so she was well positioned to interest its leaders in the program. Ms. Pittman and Ms. Handler started planning it before covid; the pandemic put it on hold temporarily but did not derail it.
It began with a video, set to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” showing a world improved by the good work that could have been done by people whose lives were cut short by hate — Yitzhak Rabin, Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mr. Lennon himself. Next, the speakers talked about the hatred that stalks and stains the world, and the ways that ordinary people can work together to counter it. They talked about programs and approaches and resources; about real things that have been proven to make a difference in the real world.
Ms. Pittman and Ms. Handler are thrilled by this first foray in broader community organizing; Ms. Pittman had done some already, but only for the synagogue, and Ms. Handler is new to it.
But neither came unprepared.
Both are therapists — Ms. Handler is trained as a teacher of the deaf and hearing impaired, and Ms. Pittman is a pediatric occupational therapist. Both work with children, one on one. Both understand the importance of relationships, and of how children are both similar to and different from adults. Both know how much work and patience and love it takes to change people, and how profound the results of that work can be.
“We are both trained to know the science behind things, and to work with people,” Ms. Pittman said. “I have been working in the schools for 20 years.
“And my other passion is bringing people together in the Jewish culture and tradition. That’s why I have been so involved in the temple. I find that there is great value in bringing people together. A lot of people just don’t know how. They are scared to commit. I am constantly having to drag people in, but I know that once they are in, they will be great. They will become leaders.”