Local anti-Jewish incidents spur community response.
Swastikas. Anti-Semitic leaflets littering the grounds of a synagogue and the lawns of private homes. Anti-Semitic comments at a sporting event. Anti-Jewish jokes circulating at a middle school.
These aren’t exactly the sorts of things that Westchester’s Jewish residents expect to encounter.
Such bias is especially disturbing for Jewish residents who live in some of the county’s prettiest communities, like Rye, Scarsdale, Irvington and Edgemont, where these recent incidents occurred.
Ellen Plum-Rosenberg was shocked to receive anti-Semitic flyers on her lawn, first in March 2009 and again last November.
“It’s bigger than just ‘kill the Jews,’” said Plum-Rosenberg, president of Scarsdale Synagogue-Temples Tremont and Emanu-El. “It’s about racial discrimination and hatred. Let’s talk about racism and prejudice. It’s always there. You need the right social and economic conditions for it to bubble to the top. We need to speak about it. It’s a matter of educating each other. It’s just not acceptable to do this.”
The list of unacceptable actions has grown longer in recent months.
Earlier this spring, a swastika was spray-painted on a public works department bulldozer in Irvington. In April, a swastika was found on the wall of the Irvington train station. At Irvington Middle School, anti-Semitic comments and jokes that students have made to one another — including one student telling another to jump into an oven — have caused distress and soul-searching in the school and larger community. And in mid-May, a girls’ softball game between Solomon Schechter School of Westchester and Edgemont’s Seely Place Elementary School was stopped when some Edgemont players made anti-Jewish comments to some of the Schechter students.
The increase in these disturbing incidents has prompted a variety of responses by the Jewish community. The Westchester Jewish Council (formerly the Westchester Jewish Conference) is hosting a round-table focusing on Jewish institutional security and anti-Semitism. On May 16, Scarsdale Synagogue-Temples Tremont and Emanu-El sponsored a community-wide interfaith symposium on “Understanding Differences-Respecting Diversity,” designed to discuss and address bias incidents.
“We want to reach members of many communities,” said event co-chair, Scott Baken, who is also chair of the Westchester Jewish Council’s security round-table.
Towards that end, the panel discussion featured Heide Mason, chief of the hate crimes unit for the Westchester Country district attorney’s office; Ken Stern, American Jewish Committee director on anti-Semitism and extremism, and Calvin Scholar, a civil rights lawyer and former chief of the hate crimes unit for the Westchester County district attorney’s office. Twenty Westchester organizations that fight bias were also represented, as was Yvette Rugasaguhunga, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who has been a speaker for the Westchester Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center and who delivered a poignant monologue.
Still, as Stern pointed out in a separate phone interview, anti-Semitic leaflets and swastikas “are not a new thing. In the last 15-20 years, there have been things like this in Westchester.”
Referring to the Irvington incidents, Stern said, “The community should take this seriously. The more important question is not focusing on, potentially, a 16-year-old with a spray can, but what is the community doing in the aftermath?”
In Irvington, the school district has held anti-bias assemblies in each school, including a program from the Anti-Defamation League, “Let’s Get Real,” about the harmful effects of jokes. Some Irvington students have been suspended or disciplined for their comments. According to a letter sent by Dr. Elliot Spiegel, headmaster of Solomon Schechter of Westchester to the school community, the Edgemont softball team and its coach have been asked to come to Schechter to apologize to the students. And Baken hopes to involve the organizations that participated in the May 16 event to develop a forum, “communities in concert,” to deal with bias and prejudice issues as an ongoing commitment.
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