‘There’s no normal anymore’

‘There’s no normal anymore’

Jewish rally in Teaneck park attracts hundreds in response to antisemitic events targeting the town

The community gathered, with little notice, to fight against antisemitism and to foster harmony.
The community gathered, with little notice, to fight against antisemitism and to foster harmony.

“I cannot help but look at that playground over there, and I see children playing,” Ed Stelzer of Teaneck told the crowd gathered at the township’s Votee Park on Sunday.

“And the only thought that comes to my mind is the town that my father lived in in Poland in 1938. I don’t know whether Jaroslaw, Poland, was like Teaneck, New Jersey, but I’ve seen books and I’ve seen pictures, and there were schools, and there were places where people went to pray, and there were places where people got together, and they convened in town squares.”

Mr. Stelzer was addressing a rally organized only hours before by the Bergen County Jewish Action Committee, an organization formed by a group of Teaneck residents after October 7 in response to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel speeches at town council and board of education meetings. The group’s goal is to fight antisemitism and foster harmony within the local community.

Mr. Stelzer had not been scheduled to speak at the rally, an impromptu event that was organized on Sunday morning in response to a pro-Palestinian car rally BCJAC leaders found out was planned to be held in Teaneck at the same time. The event at Votee, scheduled for noon, was not publicized until about 10 a.m., and Mr. Stelzer found out about it 20 minutes before it started.

The planned car rally was just the latest in a long line of pro-Palestinian events held in Teaneck in recent months. On the previous Sunday, March 10, a protest outside Congregation Keter Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in town, against a private event showcasing Israeli real estate being held on the premises, drew about 1,000 participants, according to BCJAC estimates, and resulted in two arrests.

Yigal Gross of Teaneck, BCJAC’s spokesperson, sees these two protests, part of the string of other car rallies, demonstrations, and walkouts that have taken place in Teaneck since October 7, as “a targeted and malicious campaign to intimidate and harass the community.” The sheer number of events that have taken place in the township, along with their disruptive nature and hateful rhetoric, and the fact that so many of the participants do not live in Teaneck, make this clear, he said in an interview after the BCJAC rally.

At the demonstration outside Keter Torah, paintballs were thrown at cars, and two perpetrators later were charged with bias crimes. That demonstration also featured “shocking and hateful slogans,” Rachel Cyrulnik of Teaneck, BCJAC’s vice president, said after the BCJAC rally. “We heard, ‘Go back to Germany,’ ‘Go back to Auschwitz,’ ‘Rape is resistance,’ ‘Are you scared yet,’ ‘Globalize the Intifada,’ and of course, ‘From the river to the sea.’

“One protester told an officer who was cleaning something on the floor, ‘get on the floor and eat it, you pig,’” Ms. Cyrulnik continued. “And we saw signs that read ‘Israel is a terrorist organization’ and ‘Don’t worry Zionists, there is plenty of land for you in hell.’ We have video footage of much of this.”

Other protests have “used slogans like ‘flood Teaneck streets’ and ‘flood Teaneck’s parks,’ terminology from the Al Aqsa Flood operation” — the October 7 attack — to evoke a sense of fear, Mr. Gross said. And the car rallies have involved honking, throwing things at pedestrians, running red lights, and obstructing the flow of traffic, he added.

“We’ve seen repeated attempts to bus people in, and this is not the first, second, or even third, car rally that has been held here,” Mr. Gross continued. “This is now becoming a regular occurrence, and the facts speak for themselves. Why are they coming to Teaneck of all places? What significance is there to Teaneck, other than the fact that there is a large Jewish community here? In our minds, they’re trying to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here, and use the innocent Jews of Teaneck as proxies for whatever frustration they have against the Israeli government.”

So BCJAC leadership thought it was important to take a stand. “We’ve seen these tactics of intimidation brought to our community week after week,” Ms. Cyrulnik said. “And people in our town are saying no, we’ve had enough. We deserve to live here in peace.”

The protest at the park was designed to send a message to the people coming to Teaneck to target Jews that “we don’t want hate in our community,” she added. “We don’t want to see antisemitism on the streets of Teaneck.

Signs emphasized openness as well as the community’s strong ties to Israel.

“This was really an opportunity for the people of Teaneck to come together and to express our unity and our strength and our lack of intimidation.”

BCJAC leadership took steps to ensure that there would not be any disturbances or violence as they sent this message, Ms. Cyrulnik added. A car rally by outside protesters left Paterson at 12:30, and BCJAC organizers were not sure if the caravan was going to pass Votee, so they sent out guidelines asking their supporters not to engage with it.

The caravan ultimately did not materialize “when we were there,” Mr. Gross said. “And I wonder whether they didn’t shy away because I think our turnout was pretty strong, so I think that was a message that was received.”

The gathering at the park also was intended to send a message to local officials who he feels should do more to prevent the community being targeted, Mr. Gross said. “I think the police could probably be more aggressive than they have been. I think they’re trying to be careful, trying not to inflame a sensitive situation, but there comes a point where if they don’t act, things have a way of escalating.” For example, when the car rallies are “not obeying traffic laws, blocking streets, or just creating problems for the flow of traffic, police should be more aggressive in ticketing them.”

BCJAC estimates that the protest at Votee drew almost 400 people. “That we were able to draw so many people on that kind of notice was pretty extraordinary,” Mr. Gross said. “To me, it speaks to a real sense of anger and frustration in the community. People feel like we’re being targeted, people feel like more needs to be done, and that we as a community need to be projecting more strength than we’ve been projecting.”

But it’s important to project that strength responsibly, Mr. Gross added. “Sometimes what may feel like the right response, and may feel satisfying on a cathartic level, isn’t necessarily the smart response.” At the same time, he doesn’t want the people who come here to protest to get the idea that “we’re somehow afraid, or weak,” he said. “There’s not a lot of fear in the community. I think people are pretty strong and are not intimidated. We’re going about our lives.

“The general sense is that if what they’re trying to do is derail Jewish life in Teaneck, somehow drive us out, they’ve literally achieved nothing by way of tangible results. All that they’ve done is cause chaos and, I think, run up a fair security bill for our municipality. So I think as a community we’ve held strong.

“I think these antagonists should not get the impression that the lack of response, or that the lack of response that’s similar to theirs” indicates fear or intimidation, Mr. Gross continued. “We don’t engage in any kind of violence, we don’t throw things at people, we don’t do car rallies into Paterson. That’s not because we are weak and afraid, it’s because we are law-abiding citizens who are interested in peace and interested in a constructive type of existence with our neighbors.

“There are plenty of things we could have protested at local mosques,” he added. “We’ve made an affirmative decision not to do it, and that’s a conscious decision on our part because we try to consider the overall safety of the people of Teaneck, not just the Jewish community, but also our neighbors. We try to maintain calm as best as we can.”

Mr. Gross stressed that it’s important to ensure that antagonists do not mistake this responsible behavior for weakness and become emboldened. “So the sense is that we have to make that clearer,” he said. “And I think today was an attempt to do that.”

The Votee protest was very different from many of the events it was designed to protest. Both American and Israeli flags fluttered throughout the crowd, and participants carried signs, many of which appeared to be homemade, with positive slogans including ‘Hate has no home here,’ ‘Jews belong,’ ‘Stop the hate,’ ‘We are not afraid,’ ‘Teaneck strong,’ and ‘Bring them home now.’”

The program began with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by “Hatikvah.” The main, and perhaps only, slogan heard repeatedly was ‘Am Yisrael Chai.” Speakers included Chana Shields of Teaneck, who is a member of BCJAC’s executive board; Tirza Bayewitz of Teaneck, and a number of local rabbis. Speakers denounced hate and antisemitism, and projected strength and a refusal to be intimidated, along with pride in the town and in being part of Teaneck’s diverse community.

The executive members of BCJAC: From left, Emma Horowitz, Chana Shields, Aviva Angel, and Rachel Cyrulnik.

Rabbi Beni Krohn, who leads the Young Israel of Teaneck and is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, was one of the many local rabbis there. He came because “I think it’s important that the Jewish community of Teaneck comes out to show that we can stand proud as Jews in Teaneck,” he said on Monday. “The continued protests that are meant to intimidate and harass the Jewish community need to be met with a statement by us that we won’t be intimidated, we won’t be bullied, and we’re going to continue to live our lives the way we have in Teaneck and be proud of that. This event was an important opportunity to make that statement.”

Mr. Stelzer went to the protest for similar reasons. Once he was there, he asked to speak because “I was just looking at the scene, looking at the playground in the background, and thinking that until a few weeks ago, until October 6, we were just an ordinary sleepy town, with playgrounds and fields and band shells and everything else,” he said on Monday. “And now, all of a sudden, every Sunday is becoming something else. It just shouldn’t be that way, and it was upsetting to me, and it did remind me of Jaroslaw.

“The notion that came to me as I was looking at the playground, that all we’re looking for here — and I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial — is just for life to resume as normal. But there’s no normal anymore and that’s kind of what motivated me to just make those observations out loud.”

Other speakers also expressed a desire for normalcy. Ms. Bayewitz extolled some of Teaneck’s virtues — beautiful parks, wonderful rec programs, thriving downtown spaces, and a proud legacy of diversity — and noted proudly that her husband and daughter have both served the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps “side by side with residents from all across the community.” She mentioned the municipal green and the band shell at Votee Park that “have been host to vigils and marches where members of Teaneck’s diverse sub-communities come out to support each other,” and the local Black Lives Matter march and the vigil after the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, that she remembers attending in those spaces.

Ms. Bayewitz also said that she could never have imagined “that Teaneck would become the destination for a weekly campaign of anti-Jewish harassment and intimidation, that Jews driving on a Sunday afternoon would be subjected to hateful agitators calling them ‘terrorists’ and ‘murderers’ while throwing red paint at their vehicles,” or that “people would drive from miles away to spend their Sundays, week after week, parading through our neighborhood, running red lights, honking their horns and trying to scare us for having the chutzpah to be Jews in Teaneck.”

She concluded with this message: “We are not intimidated. We are not afraid. We love this town and this community, and we are not going anywhere. We will never intentionally run a red light. We will always be good neighbors. We respect law enforcement and appreciate our first responders.”

Ms. Shields noted that “this is the third Sunday in a row that anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, and pro-terror demonstrators are invading our community” and that “they want to disrupt us where we live, where we eat, where we shop, and where we take our kids to play.

“In fact, their entire goal is disruption,” she added. “These are the same people who try to block airports, ruin cultural and religious events like Christmas-tree lightings and concerts, and who wish to disrupt the American way of life. They want us as Jews in particular to feel unsafe, to feel intimidated, and to feel them closing in on our way of life. They want us to look over our shoulder and think twice before running our errands, going to our restaurants, and assembling in public.

“They will not win,” she concluded. “Teaneck is strong. The Jewish people are strong, and we deserve to live peacefully in our town.”

Mr. Stelzer’s family fled Jaroslaw in 1939 after someone warned his great-grandfather about the impending danger.

“Whoever is coming down this street,” Mr. Stelzer continued when he addressed the crowd, referring to participants in the car rally from Paterson held that day, “they are effectively telling us, very loudly, ‘you need to leave.’ And we are not going to leave.

“I went to my father’s house a year and a half ago, and I saw what was there. And guess how many Jewish people are left in town?” Mr. Stelzer asked. “Zero.

“And guess what: 60 years from now, 75 years from now, people will come to Teaneck, New Jersey, and they will not see that,” he concluded. “They will see us, and our children, and our grandchildren, playing on those swings, going to that bandstand, playing on that field, and being productive members of this community.”

“We are here to stay, and we are going nowhere. We will do it properly, law-abidingly. We are citizens of this town. We do everything like everyone else does. We will not be intimidated. We will not be chased away. We are not going anywhere.

“Eighty years ago, we said never again. Never again is now.”

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