In an effort to counter a spate of anti-Semitic incidents that have hit Edison in the last year, Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan has asked the town’s officials and Jewish leaders to formulate a plan to fight hatred that can be used as a model for other communities.
The announcement was made during a panel discussion about the rising tide of bias incidents at the first Dr. Jacob Kirshner program of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, on Sept. 20.
Over the last year Edison has been plagued with a series of incidents, beginning with a 19-year-old student at Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva in Edison sustaining a concussion after being jumped by a group of teens on Woodbridge Avenue the second night of Rosh Hashana in 2009. Since then other incidents have included swastikas spray-painted on the doors of Congregation Beth-El and plastered in the library, in parks, and at a nursery school, and anti-Semitic slurs hurled at observant Jews walking to and from synagogues.
A 16-year-old was convicted of juvenile counts of aggravated assault and bias intimidation in the yeshiva incident, the only suspect captured to date in any of the incidents.
New Jersey has one of the highest rates of anti-Semitic incidents in the nation, along with New York, Florida, and California, because of the large number of Jews living here, said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s NJ region, addressing an overflow crowd of 100 at the federation’s South River offices. Middlesex County has the second-highest number in the state, behind Monmouth.
Additionally, while New Jersey is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse states in the nation, it is also highly segregated, particularly some of its school districts, Neuer said.
One of the most troubling recent trends in schools has been the number of penny-throwing incidents “that have been spreading like a bad rash,” said Neuer. “I have had parents on the phone crying because their child was told, ‘Hey Jew, go pick up the penny.’ The parents never heard anything like this when they went to school. Where did it come from? I don’t know.”
The ADL was included in a recent meeting convened by Kaplan in which federation leaders and Edison officials, including Mayor Antonia Ricigliano and Police Chief Thomas Bryan, also participated.
“The first thing that will happen is that we are now going to sit down with local officials, clergy, and local enforcement,” said Neuer. “I think it’s important as we begin this initiative to realize that we as a community are not powerless. We know that the vast majority of residents of Edison are good people; perhaps a handful are behind these incidents. We need to send a message that marginalizes this handful.”
Neuer said that in his experience law enforcement takes these incidents seriously and having the backing of the prosecutor’s office and Edison police sends a signal to the general community of their seriousness.
Andrea Craparotta, the prosecutor’s office’s acting lieutenant, said as part of its M.O.R.E. (Middlesex Out-Reach and Education) unit, the office recently instituted an anti-bullying program aimed at assisting teachers and administrators in countering bias incidents, which, she said, was “a big priority.” The office also has investigators assigned to the growing problem of cyber-bullying.
Several weeks ago the prosecutor’s office also awarded $110,00 in grants to 21 municipal police departments and Rutgers University police, who received $5,000 each to develop educational and prevention programs to fight bias crimes. Edison was among those receiving the grant.
Craparotta said the department would come in at no charge to customize a program, including methods of responding to haters, for schools and communities.
“Law enforcement takes this very seriously,” she said. “Prosecutor Kaplan is briefed on every bias incident in the county. Prosecutor Kaplan has been in touch with Chief Bryan.”
Craparotta added that “reporting is key” and urged anyone who is victimized to call police. Those convicted of bias-related offenses will receive stiffer sentences under the law.
“Do not err on the side of caution,” she said. “Even if you think it may not be a crime just report it. Let us do the work.”
For more information about the M.O.R.E. program, call the unit at 732-745-8962 or the prosecutor’s office at 732-745-3300.