It has been a difficult few weeks for Etzion Neuer, New Jersey’s Mr. ADL.
A swastika on a synagogue was not that out of the ordinary for Neuer. As head of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey region since 2005, he has been the point person for complaints of anti-Semitism from throughout the state.
Molotov cocktails thrown into a rabbi’s bedroom window is something different, however. “It’s been among the most professionally trying moments of my career,” Neuer told The Jewish Standard.
“Really, it wasn’t just all of the incidents, but the nature, especially of the last incident with the firebombing. The idea that a rabbi and his wife and five children were attacked in their home – it shocked me to my core,” he said.
Neuer joined the ADL in 1999, after four years as director of Hillel Montreal. In 2004, he assumed the helm of ADL’s New Jersey office. Since 2010, however, Neuer has been mostly working out of the Manhattan offices of ADL’s New York region, where he serves as director of community services and policy, supervising a staff of three, even while he serves as acting New Jersey director pending the hiring of a replacement. Meanwhile, the ADL’s 973 area code number now rings in his Third Avenue office.
Bergen County, however, is his home. “I have a strong stake in this work as a resident, as the place where I live with my family. When we talk about issues of defending the Jewish community, there’s a deep personal element to all of my work,” he said.
Neuer grew up in Montreal, one of seven children in a Zionist household where “there was a deep sense of the importance of working on behalf of k’lal yisrael,” the Jewish community. Jewish communal service “was not just seen as a noble service, but as a necessity.” (His brother, Hillel Neuer, heads the Geneva-based U.N. Watch organization, which monitors the international body for anti-Israel activity and general failure to support human rights.)
Growing up as a Jew in predominately Catholic French Quebec, Neuer said he felt “an additional sense of ‘otherness.'” The Jewish community of Quebec “is a proud community and a strong community, but it’s a smaller community. One certainly feels much more what it’s like to be a minority than it is for people growing up in the metropolitan area.”
“In that sense, I’ve always been able to relate to callers from far-flung areas. When I receive calls from people outside of Bergen County, I understand a little more the isolation people feel,” he said.
At the ADL, “our office is a nexus for hate of all kinds. Virtually every anti-Semitic complaint crosses my desk. We get them from the state police. We get calls from children harassed in school. I’ve had parents who cry to me on the phone because their children are the victims of anti-Semitic bullying in their school. I’ve had people cry to me because they’re experiencing discrimination in the work place.”
“I see the worst Jew hatred, an unceasing flow of hatred.”
Neuer said he tries hard not to let this give him a bleak perspective on humanity. “It’s my job to make sure that I don’t become despondent.”
“I have tried to seize on the inspirational moment. It is seeing the incredible work done by Catholic teachers to teach Holocaust education in their schools. It’s the person from Louisiana who called me last week, an 82-year-old Methodist, who read about the incident online and called me to say that he felt for this young rabbi and wanted to add a thousand dollars to our reward fund.
“It’s those moments that remind me that while, yes, there are extremists, there are haters, they really represent the fringe, and the vast majority of New Jerseyians and indeed Americans are good people. I’ve seen that just as hate can be learned, it can be unlearned.”
Neuer takes pride in the success of two legal efforts the New Jersey ADL undertook: Helping pass the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights in 2010, and the 2008 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in Cutler v. Dorn, which held that anti-Semitic harassment was not “mere teasing.”
ADL had argued for the overturning of an earlier appellate decision, insisting that a Jewish police officer’s claim that fellow officers’ anti-Semitic comments such as “dirty Jew” and “Jews make all the money” constituted workplace harrassment be reinstated.
“ADL wrote a brief in the case, and they cited ADL’s brief,” said Neuer. “It was important in ensuring that Jews who suffered anti-Semitic harassment in the workplace had legal standing,” he said.
But what he is most proud of is “that anyone who called the ADL when I was there knew that I would take their issue seriously and do whatever I could to be there for the Jewish people.
“It’s unfortunate that organizations like ADL need to exist, but I consider myself blessed to be able to this important work,” he said.