In the week before the election, postcards denouncing two Asian-American candidates for the Edison Board of Education appeared in the mailboxes of some residents. It instructed voters to stop Chinese-American Jerry Shi and Indian-American Falguni Patel “From taking over our School Board”; and declared, “The Chinese and Indians are taking over our town. Chinese school! Indian school! Cricket fields! Enough is enough.” The word “DEPORT” was stamped on photos of the candidates. And, finally: “MAKE EDISON GREAT AGAIN.”
How did the community react to the overt racism and xenophobia? By gathering on the afternoon before Election Day, putting their arms around one another, and swaying to the tune of “Hineh Ma Tov Umanayim.” The following day they sent their own message via the ballot box: Shi and Patel were the top two vote-getters in a field of nine candidates vying for three seats.
Approximately 200 people attended the Nov. 6 rally, organized by the JCC of Middlesex County in Edison. It was cosponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, the Indian Business Association, and Metuchen-Edison Area Interfaith Clergy Association.
“We must join together as a whole community to reinforce our strong stance and belief against ignorance, bigotry, bias, intolerance, and hate,” said Dorothy Rubinstein, the JCC’s executive director. “An integral part of our mission is a concept called tikkun olam, repair of the world. May we continue to pursue that goal together for a stronger community.”
Speakers and community members said they were alarmed by the recent increase in intolerance in a community as religiously and ethnically diverse as Edison.
Addressing the crowd at the rally, federation CEO Keith Krivitzky said, “Hate has no place in our community.” He noted that the Jewish community has consistently supported its neighbors and others in the faith community victimized by bigotry, using the example of Abraham and Sarah, “the mother and father of many nations.”
“We can look down our family tree and see we are all part of one family,” Krivitzky said.
Clergy Association President Rabbi David Vaisberg of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, who is also president of the Rabbinic Association in the Heart of NJ, drew an analogy between sinat chinam, the enmity among Jews that brought about the destruction of the Temple, and the postcards.
“Senseless and baseless hatred for anyone is destructive to the support and tapestry of Western civilization,” he said. “Edison is our temple and we can’t let it fall.”
The synagogue’s cantor, Aviva Marer — who is of Indian descent — led the singing of the national anthem and noted the mutual respect between the Indian and Jewish communities. Her grandfather served as an official in the country’s transportation ministry and founded the first synagogue in New Delhi.
“Jews have lived in India for 2,500 years without a shred of persecution,” she said. “Indian and Jewish culture blend together seamlessly and always have. Today the Indian and Jewish communities stand together as they always have, united against hate and bigotry.”
Cantor Sheldon Levin of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen translated the words of “Hineh Mah Tov Umanayim” — “How good it is for peoples to dwell together in peace” — and then led the singing. He asked everyone to link arms and sway back and forth, even if they didn’t know the words.
ADL New Jersey regional director Joshua Cohen said “an attack on one community is an attack on the entire community,” and that the confluence of cultures, races, religions, and ethnic groups in the United States enhances “the nation’s strength, beauty, and collective wisdom. Together we all weave the fabric of our pluralistic society.”
Cohen emphasized the importance of neighbors standing together in the face of hatred, calling the rally “a civic revival” of the social contract that binds Americans together.
“Today’s gathering is a response, a reminder, a clarion call, that the forces of hate and bigotry that seek to divide us will not prevail,” he said. “Let us send a resounding message across the state that New Jersey is no place for hate.”
Other speakers represented the Muslim, African-American, and Asian communities. Reginald Johnson said he came wearing three hats: he’s president of the Metuchen-Edison branch of the NAACP, an agent with the bias crime unit of the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, and a human being. There have been 94 bias cases reported in the county so far this year, he said, reminding the gathering that “we lose the battle if people hide” and don’t report incidents.
Sam Khan, chair of the South Asian Community Outreach and the American Muslim Council, said his groups’ message to their neighbors is one of peace and harmony.
Noting that Muslims are often targeted for their perceived anti-Americanism, Khan said this could not be further from the truth.
“I came here with only a few dollars in my hand and this country gave me everything,” he said. “I love this country more than anyone.”
Other organizations with representatives at the rally were the South Asian Bar Association and Asian-American Bar Association
Rose Cushing, president and CEO of the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy — which shares the Community Campus with the JCC — said the campus is a center celebrating diversity. “We need to make the community better for the next generation,” said Cushing.
Larry Deutchman, a 30-year-old Edison resident and member of Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, said he was disheartened by the postcards.
“I grew up in Newark with Irish kids, Italian kids, Puerto Rican kids, black kids, and we didn’t have the word racism,” said Deutchman, a Republican, who ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat on the Township Council. “We accepted everyone and stood up for each other. I miss those traditions.”