Teaneck board of ed loses control … again

Teaneck board of ed loses control … again

Unchecked antisemitic speaker, negative rhetoric on Israel, and heckling dominate chaotic meeting

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, left, and Rabbi Daniel Fridman
Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, left, and Rabbi Daniel Fridman

If the Teaneck Board of Education’s October public meeting was a mess, haunted by accusations that speakers were not allowed to bring up the atrocities that Hamas terrorists committed in Israel on October 7 but others were given the chance to talk with specificity and at length about the war in Gaza and what they accused Israel of doing there — issues that are not relevant to the board but are passionately important to the community — it entirely paled in comparison to the board’s December meeting.

Readers should note that this is not hyperbole; a video of the meeting is posted on the board’s website, teaneckschools.eduvision.tvv.

Tirza Bayewitz and Chana Shields, who both live in Teaneck and are active in the newly formed Bergen County Jewish Action Committee, were at the December 13 meeting. They described what happened.

After a fairly unusual beginning, when the board’s chair, Sebastian Rodriguez, set what he hoped would be the tone for the evening by reminding spectators that comments should be civil, respectful, and safe, the first hour was normal. Reports were given, students and faculty were honored, nothing remotely inappropriate happened.

Then the floor was open for comment. Parents, students, and interested others lined up at the microphones, a clock ticked down the three minutes allotted to each speaker, and soon it all went south.

The speakers expressed strong views, as was their right; Mr. Rodriguez alternated between people who were at the meeting and others who were online. That kept the temperature down for a while.

Still, “there were several speakers who said inflammatory things,” Ms. Bayewitz said. “Several of them spoke about the dismantling of Israel.” One of those speakers identified himself as a public school teacher from Montclair. “It is within the board’s purview to prioritize Teaneck residents, but they did not,” Ms. Shields said.

“Several speakers continually referred to Israel as the Zionist entity and the Zionist regime,” Ms. Bayewitz said. “They were not curtailed in any way by anyone.”

“And in fact, a couple of times Jewish members of the audience called out to say, ‘Doesn’t that language violate the guidelines?’ But they didn’t do anything.

“There were other people giggling or making comments too. When I spoke, the people on line behind me were snickering.

None of this was good — tension was building, and amity was low. It boiled over when Rick Whilby of Englewood spoke.

Mr. Whilby, who used to live in Teaneck but moved one town over, often has made his antisemitic world-view known. He started early that evening. “He was heckling as people spoke,” Ms. Shields said. “He referred to one Jewish person as a snowflake. Then, he said, very proudly, ‘I better get myself a Jew lawyer.’

“The security people did come over to him and said ‘Shut your mouth’ several times, but they didn’t remove him.

“He is physically imposing,” she added.

“I’ve seen videos of him speaking at the Englewood board of education, and he was invited, by students, to the student-led walkout in Teaneck.” That’s when students supporting the Palestinians left school to protest, carrying signs and shouting slogans including the highly provocative “From the river to the sea.”

Mr. Whilby was the last speaker in that section of the meeting. His speech to the board was wildly outside Mr. Rodriguez’s guidelines. He quoted from the Christian Bible; he jumbled together lines that seem to be from John 8:44, “You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do,” which apparently is about Jews,  and from Revelation 3:9, “Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but do lie.” Then he talked about plantations in the Caribbean, and how Jews don’t know anything about genocide. He started cursing and offered the audience both his middle fingers. He appeared to be devolving quickly.

“He went on for about two minutes — this was all happening very fast — and when we realized what he was saying, some Jewish members of the audience got up and stood with their backs to him,” Ms. Bayewitz said. Others walked out, as the video shows. Someone said that the first public session was over — there was about a minute left on the clock. When Whilby finally was escorted out, “the audience applauded what he was saying. Our neighbors applauded him. I saw them,” Ms. Shields said.

“We met with the superintendent and Rabbi Schrier” — that’s Rabbi Elliot Schrier of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. “Rabbi Schrier said, “If someone identifiably Jewish had said hateful things about another demographic group, my response would have been, ‘You don’t speak for me!’

“‘My hope was that we would see something similar in response to the blatant antisemitism at the board of ed meeting. But we didn’t. It was met with a round of applause instead.’”

“Another very stark thing: We had just sat through an hour of hairsplitting mental gymnastics about how ‘From the river to the sea’ isn’t antisemitic, and then they all applauded what was very clearly Middle Ages-level Jew-hatred.”

When Mr. Whilby left, Mr. Rodriguez announced that the second session of the meeting that was to be open to speakers was canceled. The board did a little more public business and then retreated to a private session.

“You can see Rabbi Taubes” — that’s Michael Taubes, rabbi of Congregation Zichron Mordechai — “walked over to the dais and a board member, Victoria Fisher, told him to get the f*** back,” Ms. Shields said.

Laura Fein of Teaneck was at the meeting too.

It’s a mistake to dismiss someone like Rick Whilby as unstable, she said, although certainly he did give that impression. “He was ranting, but there were dozens of seemingly stable people there who were cheering, applauding, snapping for him publicly,” she said. “As he was leaving the room, using very base profanity and cursing out the Jews, there were people still cheering and yelling ‘Intifada! Intifada!’ and ‘Free Palestine!’ There was no regret, shame, apology. No show of embarrassment that this was someone representing their point of view from the people applauding him, or from the board of ed.

“They shut down comments, they didn’t allow the others still in line to say another word, and then they spent at least half an hour saying goodbye individually to the outgoing board of ed representatives. Every single person on the board spoke, including the superintendent, and not one person expressed anything negative about what had transpired.”

Neither Mr. Rodriguez nor the Jewish board of education members returned emails for comment.

Rabbi Daniel Fridman leads the Jewish Center of Teaneck. He was at the meeting; he got up and walked out during Mr. Whilby’s rant.

“I want to give a message to the Jewish community,” Rabbi Fridman said. “As outrageous and disgraceful as the meeting was, do not allow yourself to be intimidated. Do not allow yourself to be belittled.

“We come from an incredibly strong people, who have been able to demonstrate dignity and resilience throughout history. Outrageous antisemitism has not been part of our recent personal experience, but we come from very good stock.

“I know that we will be equal to our historical legacy of being a resilient people, a faithful people. That is the most important thing right now. I really want everyone in the Jewish community, no matter what level of observance, no matter what affiliation, to know that they are not alone.”

Rabbi Fridman was disturbed by the freedom given to some speakers, despite the ground rules Mr. Rodriguez laid out. “Why did they allow such obvious dog whistles?” he asked. “It was outrageous, and it went unchecked.”

When Mr. Whilby spoke, “I walked out, because I felt that we should not have been subjected to that. We are lending a veneer of dignity to these proceedings, but it is highly undignified to sit in this environment. That is why I didn’t stay and wouldn’t stay. Until the board of education will commit to respecting the dignity of all people, including Jewish people, and that includes protecting First Amendment rights but not allowing disparaging and hateful attacks — until the board of education is prepared to enforce their own rules — it is regrettable because we want to participate, but we can’t.”

Much of the antisemitism comes from “what I call the binary oppressed/oppressor syndrome,” Rabbi Fridman said; it’s also often called intersectionality. “It has been wielded as a cudgel against our community. No matter what we do, we are always the oppressor. It is totally divorced from the facts.

“That’s why I tell people to go in strong. Not to be afraid. You are never alone. You don’t have to play by their rules. Be dignified. Know the truth, and be prepared, when they are ready, to share the truth with them. We don’t have anything to apologize for.”

There has been one good outcome from the brutal terrorism of October 7 and its aftermath, Rabbi Fridman said. “In many ways, the months and years leading up to October 7 were times of horrible division in the Jewish community. We would not wish October 7 on anyone, in any proportion, but it is clear that the necessary response to it is putting all of our differences aside and coming together, not only until the end of the war but beyond that.

“It is important. We have to learn this lesson. It would be a total travesty if, God forbid, we do not learn it.”

Although most of the Teaneck Jewish community is Orthodox, as are Rabbi Fridman, Rabbi Schrier, and Rabbi Taubes, all of the Jewish community, both in and out of Teaneck, is drawn together by October 7, antisemitism, and the new climate that surrounds all of us.

The Bergen County Jewish Action Committee is open to all Jews, as Ms. Bayowitz and Ms. Shields stressed.

“We love and appreciate all of our friends, particularly the Teaneck police department and the town manager,” Rabbi Fridman said. “We appreciate them incredibly. We appreciate all of our friends. But we have to start at home, with unity.”

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, who leads Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck’s Conservative shul, also spoke at the meeting. “I think that bringing our Teaneck community together — not only the Jewish community but the larger community — is vitally important. It’s far too easy to divide us with politics, with religion, with all sorts of things, and I don’t think that it helps us in the long term.

“I was trying to say a few words that might create a space for people to come together. I do not think that the goal should be to change people’s minds, but to expand their understanding about who is in our community.

“It is important to see the members of our community as being people, people who we should listen to, relate to, and understand. We might disagree with them, maybe vehemently disagree, but we should see them as part of our greater whole.

“Too many people in Teaneck do not see the other as fully human.”

The situation now is a result of “a horrible perfect storm of simmering tensions within the town that existed before October 7,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “Then you throw in the war in Israel and Gaza, and you have a recipe for some really upset people, who feel that they are not heard, that their concerns are not taken into account, that their identities are being ignored. That is not a recipe for communal harmony. We have a lot of work to do.”

On the other hand, “I am hopeful that the work can be done,” he continued. “I think that the alternative is far too ugly to contemplate.

“I think that it is work that we should be doing anyway. A lot of it is listening and building resilience, teaching people to hear things that make them upset.”

A lot of it also is teaching. “Just as all of us, or at least most of us, have gotten much better at knowing what words we shouldn’t say, at learning what is intolerant language, there are a lot of people who need to get better at learning what is intolerant language when it comes to Jews.

“And I think that we in the Jewish community need to get better at understanding how events that we understand, almost intuitively, in one way, other people understand in other ways.”

Take, for example, May 14, 1948, when the state of Israel was established.

“For me, it is one of the greatest days in Jewish history. But it is fair to say that for millions of Palestinians, it is a catastrophe. The Nakba.

“I understand that many people see it that way. That does not negate my elevating it as a holiday. I do understand their narrative, at least a little bit.

“There is a lot of fear now, given the levels of antisemitism and islamophobia. And the antisemitism dwarfs the islamophobia. We have an armed guard at my synagogue. That is terrible, and it is just a fact of life.”

Rabbi Pitkowsky agrees with Rabbi Fridman that the Jewish community is coming together, despite many differences. “I would rather that our community is a larger tent, containing a lot of people with whom I disagree, than a more pure community, with only people with whom I agree on a whole host of issues,” he said.

“A large majority of the American Jewish community has come together in defense of Israel and to stand against antisemitism,” he said. “It’s also true that there are growing voices within the American Jewish community who are unhappy with Israel’s execution of the war. But I think that the vast majority are very much behind Israel.

“I went to the rally in Washington in November, and aside from the incredibly impressive number of people there, I thought that the diversity of people at the rally was beautiful and heartening. I think it reflects the overwhelming majority of the community.

“I don’t know how long it will last, but I hope that it lasts forever.”

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