As incidents of hate and anti-Semitism continue to rise in New Jersey, the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks is launching a Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) to engage with others in Mercer County about hate crimes, bias incidents, and issues of concern to the Jewish community.
“With what’s going on in the country and the rise of white supremacists and hate crimes, we want to be organized and ready to respond,” said Lynne Azarchi, co-chair with Daniel Brent of the new JCRC in Mercer County. “We want JCRC to be a community resource, but also to be prepared for the next hate, bias, or discrimination incident so that we can respond more effectively and in a smarter, more organized manner.”
Plans for the lay-led JCRC of Mercer and Bucks Counties have been in the works for a number of years, but leaders say it is certainly needed in today’s climate.
“As people’s filters and boundaries become weaker, they may articulate, and in extreme cases, act out to express their anger and frustration at their inability to control their lives. Historically, such anger has targeted Jews,” Brent said. “We’ve grown accustomed as a Jewish community to feeling that we are an integral part of our national fabric. However, individuals and groups are seeking to polarize and agitate for political and other purposes.
“The consequences,” Brent continued, “have been documented in the increase of bias incidents and, in particular, anti-Semitic rhetoric and activity.”
There were a total of 569 reported bias incidents in New Jersey in 2018, the highest number of incidents since 2011, according to the 2017-2018 Bias Incident Report issued by the N.J. Attorney General and the N.J. State Police. Of those, 172 were anti-Jewish incidents, accounting for 30.2 percent of bias incidents statewide.
The Anti-Defamation League of New York/New Jersey reported three anti-Semitic incidents in Mercer County in 2018. The county was also targeted by white supremacists who threatened to march in Princeton in January of this year. No white supremacists actually attended the rally though hundreds of people did show up to counter them and promote tolerance.
Since 2017, more than a dozen communities across the country have either launched or beefed up existing JCRC groups, this after years of declining communal interest. In total, 125 JCRCs operate nationwide, in Jewish communities large and small. While some JCRCs operate as independent entities, the new JCRC will be a committee of the federation.
“Jewish communities are feeling less secure than they might have 10 or 15 years ago and they know intuitively that this means they need to be connected to the non-Jewish world, which is the role of the JCRCs,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), which provides training and support for JCRCs nationwide.
The goals of this new committee include developing and maintaining relationships with community leaders such as school superintendents, police chiefs, and mayors so they have a connection and liaison to the Jewish community. The JCRC will also address issues of anti-Semitism, racism, or anti-Israel sentiment should they arise.
“We want to help create an environment for civil discourse in dealing with some very challenging situations like anti-Semitism or other hate crimes or anti-Israel” behavior, said Mark Merkovitz, executive director of Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks. “We thought it would be good for the Jewish community to broaden its relationships with Mercer County municipalities that don’t have a large Jewish presence.” An estimated 9,000 Jews live in the area.
Azarchi attended a JCPA conference in February and said she found it inspiring. “A world opened up to me of all the people around the country who do this kind of thing,” she said. “I received training at the conference and learned examples of what incidents arise from around the country and how they were handled. Subsequently, I have gotten training online and in teleconferences from JCPA.”
Since the JCRC steering committee of some 12 members was formed a few months ago, they have been meeting with area law enforcement, township and city officials, and school leadership.
“We are meeting them in person to create avenues of communication and we are also sharing information about these issues so that officials feel free to contact us if they have any questions before problems arise,” said Brent, adding that “We want to be a resource to raise consciousness in communities that may not have a sizable Jewish population, and in communities where there are significant Jewish populations.”
But federation leadership wants it known that the JCRC isn’t there solely to be reactive to incidents against the Jewish community, but to stand up to hate and discrimination regardless of the intended targets, something that is particularly important to Azarchi.
“In my day job I am the executive director of Kidsbridge, which educates children to be kind, respectful, and to appreciate differences, to be Upstanders. We teach this to kids from kindergarten through eighth grade, and JCRC is like that for adults,” she said, adding that through JCRC, “we want to focus on bringing our diverse community together in a positive way.”