Monday, January 30, 2023

If New Jersey’s attorney general wanted to check on the social climate of the state’s largest college, and see in particular if Jewish students are concerned about incidents of anti-Semitism on campus, Rutgers Chabad would be a wise place to make inquiries. At Rutgers Chabad he would also get insight in how to educate state police about the unique concerns of the Jewish community, as the organization serves the needs of Jews throughout central and southern New Jersey and has a staff that includes six trained chaplains. With both goals in mind, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal visited Rutgers Chabad on Tuesday, October 16, and met with an audience of Chabad staff and students.

Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, director of Rutgers Chabad, welcomed Grewal and mentioned that this was the first official visit of an attorney general to Rutgers Chabad. Rabbi Carlebach stated that the visit is a very good sign because it indicates the concern of the state government and its interest in what is happening in local communities, and was also a recognition of the important work of Chabad chaplains.

Attorney General Grewal thanked his hosts for the invitation and stated that the Attorney General’s Office and the state police “operate much better when we have built strong bridges between us” and faith communities. This is far preferable, he said, to trying to forge connections and learn about a community’s customs in the middle of a difficult situation.

The attorney general said that the chaplaincy program at Rutgers Chabad is “a vital piece of this work,” since they can inform the training of the state police. He added, “We want to know, what more can we, should we, be doing to train our officers [about the needs of the Jewish community]?”

Mr. Grewal noted that 30 percent of reported bias incidents in New Jersey target Jews, and this affects Jewish community members’ perception of their safety. “It’s important for us to set a tone of zero tolerance for acts of bias and intolerance. So if there’s more we can do to improve awareness, we’re very interested,” he said.

In his visit to Rutgers Chabad, Attorney General Grewal was accompanied by Colonel Patrick Callahan of the New Jersey State Police and Jared Maples, director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.

As an example of learning about communities’ customs, Col. Callahan mentioned Mr. Grewal’s Sikh faith, noting the attorney general introduced him to a student who explained to him that carrying a small knife (called a kirpan) is a core principle of the Sikh faith. This led to an educational session for New Jersey State Police on the Sikh faith, which can be a major contribution to the de-escalation of potential police incidents involving Sikh citizens.

The attorney general shared that one gap he sees in law enforcement work involves incidents with juveniles; he is aware that teenagers will share anti-Semitic images over social media and think it’s not a big deal. Yet such incidents can often lead to more serious offenses. He noted that in his time as Bergen County Prosecutor, his office handled the case of two people who firebombed a shul in Rutherford in 2012. Their investigation revealed that the two men, Anthony Graziano and Aakash Dalal, initially bonded by sharing anti-Semitic images.

The attorney general said, “We can use your help in early detection,” and urged people to contact their local police if they see or hear about any acts of bias or anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Yosef Carlebach mentioned that in his experience, law enforcement personnel may not start off well informed about Jews, so proper training is essential. He related that in a workshop he led in the past with law enforcement, he asked two questions. The first question was: How many Jews are there in the world? One answer he received was 20 billion (an amusing answer, he noted, since the world population is currently 7.6 billion). The second question was: How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust? One answer he received was 20,000.

Underscoring the importance of awareness of and sensitivity to other people’s faith to law enforcement, Rabbi Carlebach shared the story of how one day he was running late to catch a flight from Newark Airport while carrying an elaborate mezuzah for a donor in Florida. A TSA agent stopped him and said he could not bring the mezuzah on the plane. Rabbi Carlebach asked to see the person’s supervisor and the supervisor, a tall black woman, came over and said it was no problem. Rabbi Carlebach thanked her and asked how she knew about mezuzot. She replied, “I live in Crown Heights. I know a mezuzah when I see one!”

Rabbi Carlebach shared additional stories about Rutgers Chabad and cooperation with authorities. In one, he described that years ago a Jewish man from Deal got on a New Jersey Transit train and put on tefillin; a passenger, unaware of Jewish practices, got off the train and reported to local police that a Middle Eastern man was acting suspiciously on the train. The police met the train and took the man from Deal to their station for questioning. Upon learning of the situation, Rabbi Carlebach immediately reached out to his contacts and was able to defuse the situation.

Grewal mentioned that there has been a national uptick of racist and anti-Semitic incidents and he was aware of incidents in years past at Rutgers. He asked the students present if they saw incidents of bias or anti-Semitism currently at Rutgers. One student replied that he sees a lot of apathy on campus; he compared this to the more overt acts of anti-Semitism that he heard about from friends in the Mahwah public schools, who found swastikas on lockers and had pennies thrown at them. Another student told about a meeting of a group on campus last year, in which one of the speakers asserted that the Jews might have been part of the problem in Germany, which led to the Nazis’ actions. He said such comments troubled him a lot.

The attorney general said that if incidents happen, they should please report them promptly—“even little ones, because they can lead to bigger ones.”

The attorney general concluded the meeting by expressing his interest in continuing the conversation with future visits.

By Harry Glazer

Sign up now!