When Joel Abraham, rabbi of the Reform Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, heard about the graffiti on Saturday morning, his first thought was, “They’re trying to ruin Shabbat,” he told NJJN. Even though he waited for sundown, he added, “I knew there was a lot to deal with.”
The night before, messages of hate were scrawled across the outside of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School building. The vandal or vandals drew a swastika and wrote Kike (though the word was misspelled the Nazi symbol was also drawn incorrectly), “N***ers suck,” a pentagram, “666,” and a picture of male genitalia next to the words “F*** Hillary.” The incident was reported to the police after the graffiti was discovered early Saturday morning. It has been declared a bias incident and is still under investigation by the Scotch Plains Police Department. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office’s Bias Unit is assisting with the investigation.
Although the high school custodial team removed the offending words and images Saturday morning after the police finished at the scene, the town is reeling.
“It feels very scary,” said Matt Levine, 14, a freshman at the high school and member of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield. Regarding the swastika, he said, “As a Jew it was just tough to see. You go back to what happened in the Holocaust and that is so hurtful and disgusting.” He arrived at the high school on Saturday morning to play soccer after the graffiti was removed. He added, “When it happens to you in this day and age it hits you — it hits you hard.”
It comes on the heels of another school incident in Westfield, where a swastika was found carved in the bathroom at Franklin Elementary school.
“We were deeply shocked and offended by the vile racist and hate-filled graffiti that was found on the wall of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School this weekend,” wrote Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, in a letter to Federation leaders.
Community leaders held a meeting on Monday morning at All Saints Episcopal Church in Scotch Plains that was attended by students, clergy, the high school principal, and other stakeholders to discuss the incident and next steps. One of the immediate outcomes was a decision to organize a student-led rally to protest hate on Tuesday, Oct. 16, at 7:30 p.m. at the high school. A longer-term response is being planned as well.
Levine was one of “about 8 or 9” students who attended, and said he was grateful that the adults allowed the students to take the lead on the rally. “It needs to be about what the students are feeling, because it’s the students’ school,” he said.
Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School principal Dr. David L. Heisey called the graffiti “offensive and inflammatory,” and told NJJN, “We are all deeply saddened by this bias. It does not reflect our community.”
Debbie Kanterman, a member of Scotch Plains-Fanwood Parents United who was at the meeting, called the graffiti “heartbreaking, devastating to see,” and “riddled with hate. It’s hard to think about someone that angry or sad and feels comfortable to post vile symbols of hatred.”
But she saw a silver lining: “We were able to move quickly to bring the community together,” she said.
“The most fantastic thing is that many organizations wanted to do something. The question is, what can we do to make sure this does not happen again?”
Abraham said the community should adhere to the lessons of the Jewish sage Hillel, who instructed, “What’s hateful to you, do not do to others.” Even so, he was not advocating a passive approach.
“I’m all for people coming together to say this is wrong, which is a reaction,” said Abraham. “But I would also like to see us deal with issues beforehand.” He pointed out that the perpetrator was “striking out at every possible group imaginable, from the illuminati to Jews to black people, Hillary Clinton supporters, and gay people.” He asked, “How do we create a community where this is not how people speak to each other?”
Abraham believes that Social Justice Matters, a local grass-roots non-profit organization which deals with matters related to race, and of which Abraham is a co-founder, ought to take the lead in facilitating conversations across the community. The organization, which was represented at the meeting, issued a statement saying there was a “need to engage in proactive efforts to educate students and bridge gaps that may exist among them.”
Other individuals and organizations represented at the meeting included Scotch Plains-Fanwood Parents United, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Ministerium, the JCC of Central New Jersey, the Anti-Defamation League, and the mayors of Scotch Plains and Fanwood.
The graffiti comes at time of rising bias incidents across the country. The ADL’s Melanie Robbins, deputy director of the New York/New Jersey regional office, said incidents in the K-12 school system have nearly doubled since 2016.
That said, she suggested that often the graffiti includes “childish mistakes,” such as in the Scotch Plains incident, with a swastika drawn backward and a racist slur spelled incorrectly. In many of these cases, she said, the perpetrator “is not a hardened white supremacist, but a child who does not have radical ideas but still feels emboldened to use these symbols.”
Robbins added, “Some say it’s a child repeating what they have seen without understanding the repercussions.” Other times, she said, the person does have some understanding, but not of the “deep impact.”
“They might be intending to be hateful but do not understand deeply what the symbols mean,” she explained. The incident on Friday, she believes, is probably “a youthful individual feeling emboldened to share hateful views.” Because the incident targeted a school, she said, the perpetrator is “likely” someone from within the school community, but without backing from a white supremacist group.
Besides the graffiti in Scotch Plains and Westfield, within the last few months there have been other incidents around New Jersey, including hate literature from the Loyal Knights of the KKK and Identity Evropa, respectively, distributed in Red Bank and the Bridgewater area, to swastikas painted on the Sussex County home of supporters of Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Dist. 5).
Rabbi Howard Tilman of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains was only “somewhat” surprised by the incident; he spoke about rising anti-Semitism in his Yom Kippur sermon this year. “It’s a wake-up call, and that hurts,” he told NJJN. “But if we’re completely surprised, we haven’t been paying attention.”
Robbins praised the initial steps taken by the Scotch Plains-Fanwood community. “There are communities that do not know how to respond or choose not to, but in Scotch Plains they are responding not only in the moment, but also looking at how to build a more resilient community.”
Clergy are first-responders to anti-Semitism