Amid growing concerns that President-elect Donald Trump’s victory has become a rallying cry for formerly fringe groups promoting racial bigotry and white supremacy, a swastika was found drawn in a student bathroom on Nov. 29 at the South Orange Middle School. This was the latest in a series of several troubling incidents at the school.
According to a Dec. 1 letter written by principal Lynn Irby, maintenance staff removed the symbol shortly after it was found in a bathroom stall. The administration has begun an investigation and is taking steps to address the issue, but as of Dec. 1 no suspects had been identified.
“We are deeply concerned that one or more of our students would find this offensive, insensitive, and divisive symbol to be funny or acceptable,” Irby wrote.
Donna Ritter, a parent of two SOMS students and a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, said she was “dismayed,” but not surprised.
“I was upset that there are people who feel it’s okay to put symbols like that anywhere,” she said, “but I wasn’t totally surprised because there were incidents like this last year.”
Ritter was referring to similar occurrences that came to light in May, when anti-Semitic images were posted by a SOMS student on Instagram, and some students were reportedly called “Jew boy” and other racial slurs in school hallways and the cafeteria, as well as during athletic events. At that time, Irby said the incidents had been investigated but did not comment on specific consequences for the students who committed the acts. Irby deferred comment to the superintendent’s office, which did not respond by press time to NJJN’s phone calls.
In 2015 there were 137 anti-Semitic incidents reported across New Jersey, a 28 percent rise over 2014, which saw 107, according to the Anti-Defamation League. They have not released numbers for 2016, but Josh Cohen, NJ ADL director, said, “We have seen an uptick in incidents across the country, anti-Semitic and other bias and bigotry,” and since the election, he and his colleagues have noticed an increase in swastika-related incidents throughout the East Coast. In 2015, Jews were twice as likely as members of any other religion to be the victim of a hate crime in this country, according to FBI hate crime statistics.
In the wake of this most recent incident, Irby reached out to four area rabbis — three from South Orange (Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Beth El, Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation, and Dan Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel), and one from Short Hills (Matthew Gewirtz of Temple B’nai Jeshurun) who has a child at the school. They are scheduled to meet this week with the ADL’s Josh Cohen, after which they will determine the next course of action.
“Once that meeting happens we will have more of a sense of how to address this properly and educate the community,” wrote Olitzky in an e-mail. He said that following the incidents last May, “leadership and upstander training” was added to the seventh- grade curriculum at Beth El’s religious school. “Our community will work together to continue to stand up to such hate and create a process where our kids — of all faiths, races, and ethnicities — will refuse to stand idly by in the face of hate and will stand up for each other.”
At Sharey Tefilo-Israel, Rabbi Cohen said that he and the administration have been speaking with parents who have reached out, he made the incident a subject of his weekly pre-Shabbat e-mail blast, and religious school director Mindy Schreff will be sending a formal e-mail to parents.
“We want to let them know that we are aware and speaking with the school, to reaffirm the type of open, inclusive, and safe community we are committed to building at the synagogue and in our larger communities, and are here to offer any support they may need,” Cohen said. “We also wanted to let them know what we have been doing in our school to discuss anti-Semitism and bias and how we respond to it.”
He added, “I do not think it is lost on any of us that there is an increase in bias incidents, and there are places in our culture that seem to be more accepting of, if not fueling, it. And it is clear that now, more than ever, we not only need to stand up, but we need to stand up and speak out together.”
Oheb Shalom has scheduled sessions to discuss the synagogue’s responses to bias, according to Cooper, who called the vandalism “a disheartening incident which we’re all hoping is not a small thread of a much bigger problem.” He noted that it is “similar to other expressions of white supremacy and anti-Semitism that have been seen across the country in the aftermath of the election of Trump as president.”
Cooper’s and Cohen’s argument that the SOMS events are part of a larger trend is bolstered by the fact that it comes on the heels of a nearly identical occurrence at the Sparta Middle School on Nov. 15, where Nazi-related graffiti, including swastikas, were found in a sixth-grade boys bathroom stall.
Josh Cohen of the ADL praised SOMS for its response.
“We applaud the school for dealing with this incident as soon as it happened, condemning the incident, distancing the school and the district from the incident,” he said, adding that “the ADL has discussed with the school the potential for doing anti-bias training and anti-bullying training.”
In contrast to Irby’s rapid response to the SOMS community, neither the police nor parents in Sparta were informed about the swastika at the middle school until a week after the incident, according to the Sparta Independent.
“It is imperative to reach out to the community in a timely manner,” said Josh Cohen. “Students should be able to go to school free of racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. When incidents happen, schools need to deal with them expeditiously.” He added that both incidents fall within a trend of young people, several generations removed from the Holocaust, who may think that joking about the Holocaust is okay.
“It’s not okay,” he said. “There’s nothing funny about anti-Semitism.”