Palisades Park can be considered one of those abandoned Jewish communities in Bergen County. The post-WWII residents outgrew their synagogue building and built a larger synagogue in Leonia. Today, that building is a Korean church and only a handful of Jews are left in the area, yet they still care passionately about their community. Robin Katz is one such person. Katz volunteers for One Family Fund in Teaneck.
“As someone in a tiny Jewish community in Bergen, it makes it difficult to be taken seriously when an issue touching upon Judaism is raised in my town,” said Katz, whose grandparents opened a 5 & 10 on Broad Avenue, the main drag in Palisades Park, back in the early ’50s. They lived in the town, which was primarily Italian, and employed local people until the store was sold to a Korean family in 1997. Katz, raised in Teaneck and Englewood, inherited her grandparents’ house.
Today, Broad Avenue is “Little Korea” and Palisades Park houses the largest Korean community in the United States. A long-established Catholic church and parochial school are around the corner of the public library, and the library has gone out of its way to accommodate that community both inside and outside its building, including, years ago, allowing a staff member, Steven Cavallo, to paint a permanent mural of Santa Claus and a Xmas tree on the wall of the children’s library.
Once she saw it last December, Katz discovered that it had been on the wall for four years. “I was really upset because I’d never seen a permanent Santa Claus and Xmas tree on a library wall and I felt they were trying to influence the children’s beliefs,” said Katz. “The library director, Susan Kumar, responded to my complaint by telling me that ‘the only people who have complained are people who don’t have children.’ I wish I had taped those words because later at a library board meeting, she denied that she said it.”
At Kumar’s insistence, Katz attended two library board meetings and taped one wherein Ms. Kumar said that she feels that the Santa mural ‘inspires children.’ When Katz asked how the mural inspires Jewish and Muslim children, Katz reports that Kumar refused to answer. Kumar and the library board insist that Santa and the tree are secular symbols and have nothing to do with Christmas and Christianity, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision that they are secular symbols.
Katz sought support from two local rabbis, who gave advice, but didn’t want to get involved. She wrote to the Library Association, but they could offer no practical help. Her state senator does not deal with libraries, but the assistant offered to forward her complaint to the Bergen County Freeholders. The Freeholders would not consider the complaint because Palisades Park owns the library building and so they sent the matter back to the state senator’s office. The senator’s office sent it to the Borough Administrator of Palisades Park, who said the mural stays.
The library does not consider these symbols Christian. They cite the 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Lynch V. Donnelly which considers Xmas Trees and Santa Claus secular. But Katz was informed in both board meetings she attended that a menorah is “religious and therefore forbidden.”
Katz visited the library on Chanukah. Of course she did not see a menorah. She has asked Susan Kumar to change the library’s mission statement, which she feels is hypocritical. The library’s mission statement, posted on their BCCLS site, reads, “We aim to inform, educate, and enrich our community through inclusion of our diversities and commonalities.” Katz has asked Kumar to remove the phrase “inclusion of our diversities” because they exclude the Jewish people.
Kumar, in an email to Katz, says that she refuses to comment anymore. Kumar has refused to answer any of JLBC’s calls or e-mails.
Said Katz, “The Supreme Court fiction—that St. Nicholas is secular—led to this. If one public library can paint a permanent St. Nicholas on a wall because he ‘inspires children,’ which library or public building is next? Every Jewish person in Bergen County needs to see this mural in Palisades Park.”
By Jeanette Friedman