Two anti-Semitic Instagram images were posted by South Orange Middle School students in early May. One featured two girls looking out from a porch, with the caption “views from the schwitz,” a reference, presumably, to Auschwitz, followed by a star of David emoji. The other featured a swastika surrounded by stars of David, symbols of communism, an obscene gesture, and the World Trade Center, set against a rainbow flag.
In addition, several students reported being the targets of anti-Semitic slurs like “Jew boy” in the school hallways and cafeteria as well as during athletic events.
The postings came to light in large part because a South Orange Middle School student, whose family belongs to Congregation Beth El in the town, spoke up.
The religious leaders of the three main synagogues in South Orange — Rabbis Jesse Olitzky of Beth El, Dan Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation — drafted a joint letter that they distributed to the members of their congregations and then posted on line.
The letter confirmed the occurrence of the bias incidents, celebrated the diversity of the town (and its sister town, Maplewood, with which it shares a school system), and assured congregants that steps were being taken to address the issue.
It reads in part, “We are blessed to live in a diverse community. It is this diversity that makes South Orange-Maplewood an attractive place to live, worship, and raise families. At the same time, diversity can, at times, be challenging.”
The letter goes on to underscore the importance of the school administration’s understanding “the need to address issues of bias on all levels in a positive, ongoing manner and use this as a learning opportunity for the community-at-large.”
It continues, “We commend those in the community and in our schools who saw bias and took a stand against it,” wrote the rabbis. “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that ‘We are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.’”
The three rabbis, together with Anti-Defamation League NJ regional director Josh Cohen, participated in a meeting held May 9, convened by the South Orange-Maplewood School District. Also taking part were Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, whose son attends SOMS; SOMS principal Lynn Irby; superintendent of schools Dr. John J. Ramos; assistant superintendent of schools Kevin Walson; and assistant principals, district social workers, and school guidance counselors from the district.
The district would not comment on specific consequences for the students who committed the acts, but said the incidents have been investigated.
The posts are part of an upward tic in anti-Semitic posts on social media, according to Josh Cohen, who added that they are also part of a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in New Jersey generally. In 2014, there were 107 incidents, up slightly from 2013. The numbers for 2015 will be published in June, but Cohen said they are similar to those from 2014.
In a phone conversation with NJJN, Olitzky underscored that the response to the bias incident “needs to be an ongoing conversation” and that the May 9 meeting was just a first step toward educating “the community on how to stand up to bias.” Another meeting is expected within several weeks, he said, and it will include other members of the South Orange-Maplewood Interfaith Clergy Association. “We are seeing bias that is not limited to anti-Semitism,” Olitzky said. “We think it’s important, therefore, to reach out to non-Jewish clergy.”
The incident came at about the same time as a reposting on Instagram of an image of two girls, students at Maplewood’s Columbia High School, with their faces darkened and with a caption featuring a slur against African-Americans.
On May 15, Ramos sent a letter to all parents in the district. Referring to both the anti-Semitic and racist incidents, he wrote, in part, “We absolutely reject these images and comments. They have no place in our community.
“In essence,” he continued, “several students made bad choices…. We are using our code of conduct and restorative practices strategies, as well as engaging community resources, to help students recognize and address the effect their behavior has had on our school community.”
Blaming what he called “the toxic national rhetoric” in part as giving “tacit permission for people to say whatever they want to say, no matter how offensive,” Ramos outlined a plan that includes giving students and faculty the training and tools to respond to expressions and acts of bias and participate in a larger community conversation.
“There are so many layers here,” said Rabbi Dan Cohen: “latent bias; kids use social media and lack understanding of the impact; also, young people and their parents need to come forward and be upstanders, not bystanders.
“We need to work to create a culture where if you see something, no matter what it is, you speak up,” he said.
Parents of one of the students involved reached out to Rabbi Cohen. “That must be very difficult — to pick up the phone and talk to a rabbi you don’t know and say, ‘Here’s what’s going on. We want to talk.’ I am incredibly impressed,” he said.
Like the other clergy and administrators, he said he sees the actions as problematic — he called them “hateful” — but he also sees an opportunity “to draw lines and explain why this is not okay, why this is not acceptable. It’s a teachable moment,” he said.
Many pointed to the dissonance of such incidents’ occurring in a community known for its diverse population. Gewirtz, who lives in Maplewood with his wife and three children, said he was “shocked. We moved here specifically because it was important to us to live in an area that felt diverse in terms of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation.”
Cooper said he perceives “hairline cracks” in the towns’ “image of diversity and tolerance…, something we have to pay attention to.” It is naive to react with astonishment to the incident, he said. “We don’t live in a utopia. We live in a complex society that is part of the fabric of the larger world,” he said, adding that that world includes kids torching yeshiva buses, incidents that sparked the #Black Lives Matters movement, and a presidential election cycle that offers no guidance on drawing appropriate lines.
All four rabbis urged more sharing of and educating about religion and approaches to life rather than a closing off.
Rabbi Cohen said that in order to be serious in their response, “we have to say out loud, even in a town like this, that it is natural to have biases, stereotypes, and prejudice. That does not make us terrible but, rather, human.”
He added, “The issue is not that we have bias, but how to talk about it in ways that we can own it.”