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Friday, January 21, 2022
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Several incidents of swastikas being scrawled in town schools and a park have alarmed residents, clergy and officials in the quiet suburban community of Westfield and prompted it to toughen penalties for hate incidents and initiate educational programming.

While Jewish leaders are grateful for the support, they note Westfield incidents are a reflection of the rise of antisemitism in New Jersey and across the nation.

“We’ve seen such incidents of antisemitism in many nice upper-middle-class towns in New Jersey,” said Alexander Rosemberg, deputy director of the New York/New Jersey region of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “Last year we had 98 incidents just in New Jersey alone. This is something we’ve been tremendously worried about and we are looking to expand our anti-bias program in spaces as far and wide as we can.”

Rosemberg told The Jewish Link the ADL is collaborating with the school district to bring in programming to students.

“This is not a town where you would expect this to happen,” said Rabbi David Levy, executive director of the New Jersey American Jewish committee (AJC). “But we’ve seen a rise across the country. I’m not surprised because students might be influenced by social media.”

Two incidents at Westfield High School last month are the latest incidents of antisemitic graffiti in the Union County community. A swastika was found in a stall of a girls’ bathroom. Less than a week later two more swastikas and a racial slur were carved into a bathroom stall. Several months ago there was another incident at the middle school.

“While copycat incidents are not uncommon, it shows that there is a pervasive problem of antisemitism and intolerance at our high school,” wrote Principal Mary Asfendis in an email sent to parents following the second incident. “It also highlights the need for all members of our community to support our Jewish and minority communities and to speak out against the prevalence of hateful graffiti, speech and actions.”

In November, antisemitic literature was left at a church with a note threatening harm if it wasn’t distributed. In August, authorities found a swastika etched in a town playground.

In response a joint statement was put out after the second high school incident by the “Jewish community and Our Allies”: the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, Jewish Community Center of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains, and Rabbi Howard Tillman of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, and signed by a broad swath of Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy along with organizations, political leaders and police officials from Westfield and the surrounding area.

The incidents have also impelled local residents to action.

Calling it “an ugly act of hate,” another joint statement was issued after the second swastika incident by Mayor Shelley Brindle and the town council, Schools Superintendent Raymond Gonzalez and board of education, Westfield Clergy Association, Westfield Human Relations Advisory commission (HRAC), Martin Luther King Jr. Association and Westfield Area Chinese American Association.

“We stand united in our strong condemnation of all acts of hate, bias, and prejudice of any kind, and reaffirm our commitment to working together to ensure Westfield is an inclusive anti-hate, anti-racist community,” the document stated. “As community leaders, we strongly condemn all acts of racism, antisemitism, bigotry, and expressions of hatred targeting any group or individual. An attack on one of us is an attack on us all.”

Brindle told the Jewish Link that in response to the incidents and in cooperation with the AJC and the MLK association the town would be sponsoring a forum on February 3.

“I just think there has to be some action and I think it has to be owned by the community,” she said. “When people contact me asking, ‘What can I do about these incidents?’ I say, ‘No, what can we do about these incidents?’ I’ve talked to other mayors, and it’s everywhere. I think the only way to overcome this is through empathy and understanding, and the only way to do that is through interaction. I am horrified and frustrated. I just am getting tired of saying the right thing after these incidents occur—and nothing happens.”

Levy met with Brindle months ago about the problem, and praised her forceful reaction, noting that she was one of the first New Jersey mayors to sign on to AJC’s Mayors United Against Antisemitism. He also cited Rabbi Ethan Prosnit, senior rabbi at the town’s only synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. “He did a terrific job of engaging the interfaith community in standing up to this and is working with the schools,” Levy said of the rabbi. “Westfield can be very proud overall in the way in which the town has responded.”

“Outraged and saddened” by the antisemitism, the mayor and council in late 2020 passed an ordinance establishing the HRAC to counter hate and protect targeted community members, and recently adopted the AJC definition of antisemitism and stiffened civil penalties for bias graffiti from a $200 fine to $2,000.

Rabbi Prosnit told The Jewish Link that he immediately contacted the high school principal, met with school officials, his congregants and students, spoke at school board meetings “and I told my faith partners that I really need to hear their voices.” He said that clergy responded by speaking about antisemitism and hate from their pulpits and writing about it in church bulletins.

“It’s been a real community effort to make this town one where we all want to live and show this is not a symbol of our community,” he noted. “People have told me they never saw anything like that in their church bulletin, and were so happy to see it.”

By Debra Rubin

 

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