May 30, 2024
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Westchester County Executive Latimer Celebrates Jewish History Month

On May 27, the Westchester Jewish Council hosted a virtual lunchtime conversation with County Executive George Latimer, via Zoom. Outgoing WJC President Lisa Roberts welcomed many participating elected officials. “May is Jewish History and Heritage Month,” she said. “Normally we would commemorate it with the County Board of Legislators and the County Executive, as we’ve done annually for years. We are optimistic that we will resume this practice next year.”

Latimer began: “I’ve had two opportunities to travel to Israel, in 2005 and 2006. When I returned, I spoke to some of my non-Jewish friends. They asked, ‘What’s it like?’ I said, ‘Israel is roughly the size of New Jersey; they have enemies in Delaware, in Pennsylvania, in New York and offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, and then there’s some enemies within the boundaries of New Jersey. Yet, they live and they thrive. They created, out of the desert, a society; and that society shows the progress.”

He added: “We can’t talk about the Jewish community in Westchester without recognizing that what’s happening far away, the most dominant thing on people’s minds. There are things that we can and must do to make sure that the Jewish community in Westchester feels secure and feels as if there’s a real brotherhood amongst each other.

“I have asked folks to describe what was happening in Germany, as their parents or grandparents related to the rise of the Nazis and how people, who were friends and neighbors, turned out those friends and neighbors because they were Jewish: people who had fought alongside each other in the First World War. Turning on them as domestic enemies, may American never experience that level of betrayal, where people would feel unwelcome. Westchester is home to a mosaic.”

Lattimer answered several audience questions, including one on antisemitism: “While antisemitism is not new, the recent spike in violence between Israel and Hamas has fueled an alarming rise of incidents, including here in New York, increasing by 63% in the U.S. since May 10. Can you remark on the local level, including any incidents and efforts within the county to combat it?”

“When we came into office three years ago, we understood we needed a more robust Human Rights Commission to perform the functions that it was originally intended,” Latimer responded. “I was on the Board of Legislators as chairman 22 years ago, and the support of the Jewish community was critical in getting that passed. It was hard to imagine that anti-discrimination legislation would be so controversial. Passing it, we felt the HRC had not been run with vigor and energy. We reconstructed the commission and the staff, working with local human rights commissions and multiple local organizations, to push back every time there’s some incident of antisemitism.

“The annual Yom HaShoah event, in the Garden of Remembrance right outside my front window, nine floor’s down, is a singular event, but, as the county government, we needed to have ongoing efforts.

“We try to make sure our police departments are ready for the obvious, active on the high holidays and Passover, so that we have a physical presence to assist in the security that synagogues and the Jewish community need to have the celebration of the traditions.Latimer assured, Lattimer asserted. “Whenever there’s an incident, like a swastika on a stop sign, we will immediately identify who may have done it and make sure there’s no sweeping it under the rug.”

Roberts noted that many listeners are rightfully concerned about synagogue, agency or JCC security, some aided by local law enforcement and some by the community security initiative funded by UJA-Federation.

Latimer described working for 10 years in a community synagogue, with full access, often late at night. “I realized, on a personal level, how vulnerable you can feel. I was there when hostilities began in Israel, when Hezbollah and Hamas were shooting rockets into Israel. All of a sudden, there’s the concern; I’m in the synagogue, by myself, at night. It doesn’t matter that I’m not Jewish; I’m there, if somebody wants to make a localized statement of hatred, as they did in Squirrel Hill or Poway. People, whether at a major event, just working in the office, or in and around the synagogue need to feel safer.”

Latimer explained that the county police work with local police to recommend additional efforts. “If it involves allocation of resources from the county, we’re certainly prepared to do those things, and in concert with professionals who advise us. It doesn’t have to be synagogues; it could be a community center that doesn’t do religious services but is identifiable with the Jewish community.”

The event ended with Latimer confirming that he is running for reelection, and the hope of seeing everyone in person soon.

By Judy Berger

 

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