For the second time in recent weeks, the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey had portions of its building defaced by antisemitic graffiti. A building where hundreds of Jewish children come to learn each day had pejoratives and hateful words about Jews scrawled on its walls. Buildings that stand on a property central to the area’s Jewish community for nearly a century were sullied with swastikas and declarations of “Heil Hitler. “
Using the same colored chalk that preschool children happily use to decorate their playground, a stranger they never met, desecrated that very space, shattering their innocence with sweeping enmity. Eight years ago on that same spot, Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg, surrounded by hundreds of smiling children, danced with a Torah that was rescued from Hitler’s inferno. Mr. Mosberg restored that Torah and donated it to the JEC’s children.
Hitler’s hate and the SS swastika followed that Torah across time and space to once again strike fear in the hearts of Jewish children. Alas, the world’s oldest and most pernicious form of hate knows no borders. Antisemitism is slowed neither by progress nor enlightenment.
Nearly two decades ago, the world was warned of a “new antisemitism,” a hatred of Jews masquerading as “legitimate” criticism of the world’s only Jewish state. Throughout Europe at the time, extreme left and right formed an unholy alliance to declare Israel “the Jew” among the nations. In our interconnected world, this scurrilous virus has spread to infect all corners of society and it is hitting home.
For years, heads of Jewish high schools throughout the United States have sounded the alarm about what their graduates are facing on college campuses around the country. Open antisemitism masked as enlightened values invades every space from the classroom to the campus quad.
One of my colleagues, a head of an area Jewish day school, recently shared with me that our institutions, founded to inculcate Jewish values and to provide Jewish children with the best Torah education and the best general education are now spending valuable instructional time equipping graduates to confront antisemitism on college campuses and beyond.
On a recent visit to one such college campus in New Jersey a student said, “Rabbi, you should be proud of me. I finally had enough of hiding. This is who I am and I am not going to change. I came out to my friends and professors. I don’t care what they think. This is who I am.” Beaming with pride, this young lady reached for her necklace. Holding up the charm, a Star of David, she declared “Rabbi, this is who I am and I won’t be afraid anymore.”
In a few days the Jewish Educational Center will honor Erika Sauerhoff as Grandparent of the Year at a dinner celebrating our 82nd year educating Jewish children and anchoring the Jewish community of Elizabeth. Mrs. Sauerhoff has many outstanding achievements and her contributions to the community are legendary. Mrs. Sauerhoff is also a Holocaust Survivor. While over 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered, Mrs. Sauerhoff was a “hidden child.” She survived, and like so many others of her generation, she dedicates her days to rebuilding Jewish family, community and life in this land. She recently said, “Hitler wanted to build a museum out of us. We are building yeshivas, schools and playgrounds instead.”
The swastikas and hateful speech have been cleaned from the walls of our building and floors of our playground, not from our hearts and our minds. The images and feelings will not soon fade from our memory. But like the generations who came before, we will not be deterred. We will carry on, and the chorus of smiling children will continue to sing, “I’m a Jew and I’m proud.”
Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro is the Executive Vice President of the Jewish Educational Center, an Elected Member of the Hillside Board of Education, and the former Deputy Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress.