Despite intermittent storms, Teaneck’s first Unity Day celebration pressed forward on Sunday as the township tried to heal fractures among its diverse communities.
Planning for Unity Day began in late ‘007 as an outgrowth of a similar celebration held in Teaneck twice last year by the Eid Committee of Bergen County. The Muslim group wanted to expand the event to include all of Teaneck, and eventually create similar events in neighboring towns.
"We want to get rid of fear of the unknown," said Syed Tahir, a member of the Eid Committee.
Teaneck’s Unity Day drew about 1,000 people Sunday. PHOTO BY Josh Lipowsky
Local bands played throughout the day as people wandered through the Richard Rhodda Center browsing through stalls manned by the township’s Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations as well as other ethnic and community groups.
Councilmember Jacqueline Kates, chair of the Unity Day steering committee, called the event "a first step" toward healing recent rifts in the community.
"We need to bring people together but not only to talk about how we’re diverse but to work on issues," she said.
Among the event sponsors was Teaneck’s Youth Advisory Board. Tzvi Solomon, a 17-year-old student from Torah Academy of Bergen County and member of the advisory board, said its members wanted to dispel rumors the town’s youth are separated religiously and racially. "Everybody’s a different religion but we’re here together trying to get Teaneck unified," he said.
When she was a member of the town council, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-36) chaired a similar event in 1989 called Diversity Day. Unity Day was a "step forward in the new millennium, celebrating the things we have in common rather than the diversity we all represent," she said. Responding to recent events in Teaneck, Weinberg said, "There is a rift among the different communities hopefully not growing and hopefully a rift that can be healed as people talk to each other now."
Tempers in the Jewish community flared during last month’s town council election when councilwoman Monica Honis made a statement that to re-elect her without her running mates would be like sending her to the gas chambers. Shortly after, Honis clarified that she meant gas chambers as an allusion to a form of capital punishment practiced in the United States, but many interpreted her comment as a reference to Nazi death camps.
The statement was widely condemned by Jewish members of the council and the community.
"So much goes on during an election," Honis told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday. "At this stage of the game we should all understand that we should not be manipulated by dirty tricks or by those who use them to maintain their office or get elected."
Those who continue to point to her comment as an offense are "stirring the pot," Honis said, paraphrasing Mayor Elie Katz. She added that she did not think Unity Day helped to unify Teaneck.
"There need to be some real honest steps," she said. "One of the first things to do is we need to look at the things we have in common and realize we have to work to improve the Township of Teaneck instead of worrying about what our differences are."
Those critical of her statement maintained that an apology would be appropriate.
"Monica should have offered an apology for the fact that it is obvious whether this was a misspoken phrase, a misunderstood way of expressing herself the outcome was she has hurt a lot of people," Weinberg said.
Although Teaneck is famous for being the first town with a white majority to desegregate its schools, the township has faced other racial strains in recent years. Weinberg served on the town council in 1990 during a period of heightened racial tension after a white policeman shot a black youth, which resulted in massive demonstrations. Weinberg was confident that just as the township recovered then, it would do so again.
Elsworth James, a member of the Northeast Block Residents, which had a booth at Unity Day, was confident that "Teaneck can heal itself."
"There are enough groups that can make a concerted effort erasing the problems from the last election and other residential problems," he said. "It can be done."