January 15, 2014
Dear Mr Bernstein,
On November 8, 2013, the New York Times published a front page article describing a lawsuit filed against school officials and the school system in Pine Bush, NY, by three families detailing anti-Semitic abuse of their children and what they claim were the ineffectual reactions of school officials to that abuse. Whatever the merits of the lawsuit might prove to be, the article provoked strong reactions by local, county, state and even Federal officials, as well as local, regional and national media, all seeking to investigate the claims, prevent recurrences and/or assure acceptance of diversity in school populations.
Pine Bush is located in Orange County, NY. Because of the county’s semi-rural flavor, the Jewish population in the area is organized, and considers itself to be connected, on a county-wide basis. The revelations in the newspaper article led to widespread discussions throughout the county, and especially our Jewish community, about anti-Semitism in our school systems, focusing on possible effects on our children and how our community can and should respond. As the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County struggled with its desire to help our community deal with this subject, a decision was reached to ask for advice from the regional office of the Anti-Defamation League. Our hope was to organize some kind of programming for students and parents that would give us the tools we need to explain and confront anti-Semitic actions directed at our children. To our delight, the response was immediate: within two weeks senior representatives of ADL’s New Yorkoffice met with us and planned Confronting Anti-Semitism workshops that were to take place on Sunday, December 15th.
Unfortunately weather problems and the winter vacation season forced the program to be rescheduled for January 12, 2014. But I am happy to report that the delay apparently did not affect attendance or the positive impact of the program. To cover all corners of our physically widespread county, ADL arranged for three teams of program specialists to meet simultaneously in the synagogues situated in the three major population centers for the Jewish community in the county:Middletown,Monroe andNewburgh. Over 300 individuals took part in the two hour workshops, among them members from every synagogue in the county and as well as those not affiliated with the Jewish community at all. Almost half of the attendees were middle school and high school students, which means that more than a third of the Jewish students in those grades in our county were present. The workshops enabled our students to talk openly about their personal experiences with anti-Semitism and to empower them to react correctly, knowing that their parents and school officials will take what they say seriously. The adults had the opportunity to express their fears and relate their own experiences while learning how to proceed effectively in the face of anti-Semitic incidents. Perhaps most important was the opportunity afforded our community, under the aegis of the ADL, to gather together and dialogue with each other in the face of the upheavals to which we have been subjected over the last two months. Thanks to the ADL and the Confronting Anti-Semitism program, the Board of the Jewish Federation and the rabbis of the local congregations will be able to map a direction forward for our community, and the parents and students in our public schools now have the tools and the knowledge they need for dealing with future anti-Semitic incidents.
On behalf of the Jewish community of Orange County, as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County and as the chair of Klei Kodesh, the committee of rabbis and cantors in our area, I thank all in the Anti-Defamation League who made this program possible and available to us on a county-wide basis. Our gratitude for your support and your expertise is deep indeed.
Rabbi Joel M. Schwab