South Orange school responds to bathroom swastika

South Orange school responds to bathroom swastika

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

South Orange Middle School has committed to short- and long-term solutions to prevent future incidents of anti-Semitism, bullying, racism, and other bigotry, in the wake of the Nov. 29 discovery of a swastika drawn in a student bathroom at the school. 

On Dec. 7 principal Lynn Irby and other district representatives met with four area rabbis and Joshua Cohen, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey regional office. 

According to a Dec. 9 letter Irby sent to parents, the school’s initial steps included conversations addressing the incident in social studies classes, grade-wide assemblies, and other student groups. In some cases, the principal held what she called “town hall meetings” with the grades; in others, Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, whose son is a student at SOMS, spoke with students. 

Irby’s letter continued, “From these conversations it became evident that we needed additional work and support to help combat not only this specific incident but racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and anti-bullying as a whole.” She outlined a number of long-term initiatives, including continued student learning, anti-bias and anti-bullying training for staff and students, and creating a “no place for hate” committee in conjunction with the ADL.

The discovery of the graffiti in the student bathroom came on the heels of a series of anti-Semitic incidents at the school in the spring. In a Dec. 1 letter, Irby said an investigation had been opened, although there was no mention of whether the perpetrator (or perpetrators) had been identified.

On the same day Irby sent that letter, members of the Association of Holocaust Organizations, an international network for the advancement of Holocaust education, remembrance, and research, issued its response to what it called “the surge” in recent months of “unabashed racism and hate speech — including blatant anti-Semitism and attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, as well as other targeted groups.” Some 93 institutions and 73 individuals signed the statement, which urged “all elected officials as well as all civic and religious leaders to forcefully and explicitly condemn the rise in hate speech and any attacks on our democratic principles.” The statement called on media and social media platforms to refuse to provide a stage for hate groups, thus contributing to the normalization of their agendas. The statement further said, “We call upon all people of good conscience to be vigilant, to not be afraid, and to speak out.”

In 2015 there were 137 anti-Semitic incidents reported across New Jersey, a 28 percent rise over 2014, according to the ADL, which has not yet released numbers for 2016.

The four South Orange rabbis, Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation, Daniel Cohen and Allie Klein of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El, sent a joint letter to their communities. In it, they underscored their commitment to work together and with the school to maintain an “open, welcoming, and safe” community, and to stand up “against all forms of bias and bigotry.” 

But the rabbis also said they sent a similar letter after a series of anti-Semitic incidents at the school last spring. 

“We were hopeful that changes would be made and training would take place to prevent further incidents of bias and bigotry,” they wrote last week. “With heavy hearts, we acknowledge that such changes were not yet implemented.” 

They pointed out the anti-bias resources and programs that are available to the school from the ADL Education Division, and added, “We will be following up in the near future to ensure that the school takes full advantage of these important programs and creates an opportunity for education and awareness for students, training for teachers, and opportunities for parents to be a part of this process.”

Olitzky added, in an e-mail to NJJN, “Our intent is to ensure that ADL be strongly involved in the follow-up and in any proactive education going forward. Clearly, that didn’t happen last time. We are confident that the next steps, which will include student education, community forums, and teacher training, as well as the goal of starting a ‘No Place for Hate’ student-led club [one of the ADL resources] at the school are all positive next steps. 

“We, the rabbis in the community, are committed to proactively staying involved in the process as well to avoid incidents of bias happening going forward.”

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