MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE / WEST ORANGE, NJ — Things have certainly been tense in America in the last few months, with organizations like the ACLU showing a marked increase in anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and racist incidents. Unfortunately, Essex County has also experienced some of this hatred.
Residents and officials in Essex County were disheartened during the final days of February to discover anti-Semitic graffiti, among other images, spray-painted along a pedestrian bridge in the South Orange section of the South Mountain Reservation. Graffiti included swastikas, the numbers “666,” along with other images.
“Detectives from our department are actively working with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Bias Crime Unit to arrest any and all individuals who may have been involved in this incident,” Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura said in a recent email correspondence. “We immediately increased our uniformed and plainclothes patrols in this area of the reservation. We have also deployed security cameras to this location. Furthermore, we have contacted and reinforced our security measures with the many Jewish community groups where our Bomb Squad and K-9 Unit have already been deployed due to prior threats and acts of vandalism. Additionally, our Crimestoppers program has posted a cash reward of up to $10,000 for information in the case (for information) that leads to an arrest.”
Fontoura said that he sees this act as more than just a prank.
“This incident clearly supersedes mere mischievous behavior or graffiti and it cannot and will not be tolerated,” Fontoura said. “The people of Essex County (must) stand united with our law enforcement community in condemning all such acts of hatred. The perpetrators of this particularly detestable crime will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. agreed with Fontoura, promising a full investigation and a severe response.
“What’s happening in South Mountain Reservation is discouraging and maddening, and our parks department is working quickly to remove the repulsive markings,” DiVincenzo said in a recent email. The markings had been removed by the afternoon of Feb. 28, after park workers sandblasted and painted the bridge. “In Essex County, our diversity is our strength, and our open spaces are there for the enjoyment of everyone. We do not condone the defacing of public areas and we do not tolerate the hateful intent of this graffiti. With our Sheriff Armando Fontoura and Prosecutor Carolyn Murray, we are investigating this heinous act and will prosecute the perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law.”
The South Mountain Conservancy was glad to see the quick and serious response provided by the Sheriff’s Office and county parks department and hopes not to see a recurrence of such graffiti.
“The South Mountain Conservancy is appalled that the reservation has become a focus for hate speech and inflammatory symbols on the South Orange Avenue bridge,” South Mountain Conservancy Board Chairman Dennis Percher said in a recent email. “Essex County, known for its diverse population, is unfortunately not immune to increased threats to Jewish centers and other anti-Semitic acts across the country in the past several months. We applaud the quick action by the county in removing the graffiti and increasing surveillance, and the statements by the local municipalities and the community at large to send a clear message that hate speech of any kind will not be tolerated.”
In addition to the offensive graffiti throughout the country, in January and February, 90 bomb threats were called into 73 locations across North America, targeting JCCs and Jewish schools. On Jan. 31, the West Orange JCC received one such threat. According to the police report about the incident, an older female called the JCC and said there was a bomb inside the building, though she would not say where. The West Orange JCC evacuated quickly and, following a response by the West Orange Police Department, Essex County Sheriff’s Department and NJ Transit police, patrons were allowed to re-enter the building a few hours later after it was determined no explosives were present.
“Our policy is not to comment about our JCC security program other than to let you know we have an active program in place supported by both local law enforcement agencies as well as private consultants,” West Orange JCC CEO Stuart Raynor said in a recent email. Raynor had previously explained that one of the reasons the evacuation on Jan. 31 went so smoothly is because the JCC does regular drills and remains on constant watch.
Despite these ongoing threats, the JCC Association of North America remains undeterred in its goal of providing programs and services to the entire community.
“Anti-Semitism of this nature should not and must not be allowed to endure in our communities,” David Posner, director of strategic performance at JCC Association of North America, said in a press release. “The Justice Department, Homeland Security, the FBI and the White House, alongside Congress and local officials, must speak out — and speak out forcefully — against this scourge of anti-Semitism impacting communities across the country.
The Jewish community was somewhat bolstered by the recent arrest of Juan Thompson of St. Louis, Mo., who allegedly cyber-stalked a woman and made several threats to JCCs in her name. According to a March 3 press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York, Thompson allegedly made eight of the 90 bomb threats in an alleged attempt to frame the woman he stalked for making “bomb threats against Jews.” According to authorities, he made some of the threats in his own name in order to frame his victim for framing him. He allegedly included such phrases in those threats as: “He wants to create Jewish Newtown tomorrow,” likely in reference to the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which a gunman killed 26 victims, including 20 children.
“JCC Association of North America is gratified by the arrest made in connection with the large number of anti-Semitic threats that have targeted JCCs and other Jewish institutions over the past two months,” Association President and CEO Doron Krakow said in a March 3 statement. “We trust that the perpetrators behind all of the threats will be swiftly identified and brought to justice.”
Following these hateful acts, the communities within Essex County are speaking up.
“The township is disheartened by the numerous bomb threats and other acts of hate to Jewish Community Centers across the country. We are relieved that most of these threats, including a recent one to our local JCC, have proven unfounded,” West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi said in a Feb. 28 statement. “The JCC is a big part of the West Orange community. We are an accepting and inclusive township and pride ourselves on our diversity. We reject such hurtful, bigoted antics as well as other acts of hostility, such as anti-Semitic graffiti discovered under a bridge at the reservation in neighboring South Orange.”
Parisi assured residents that the West Orange Police Department will continue to work with the West Orange JCC to ensure safety and that such hate crimes are being taken seriously. He encouraged any residents with information about these anti-Semitic acts or any threats to the community, to contact the West Orange Police Department at 973-325-4000 or the Mayor’s Office at 973-325-4100.
Similarly, the leaders of South Orange and Maplewood released a joint statement on Feb. 28 condemning these actions.
“Hatred and bigotry against any group and in any form are unacceptable. We, the elected leaders of South Orange and Maplewood, are united in speaking firmly and clearly against the rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and misogyny in our country and within our communities. In our two towns we embrace our neighbors and are proud that people of different ethnic, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds and sexual orientation are living and thriving together,” read a joint statement from Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, South Orange President Sheena Collum, the Maplewood Township Committee and the South Orange Board of Trustees.
“We deplore the recent acts of vandalism in South Mountain Reservation, which was primarily anti-Semitic but more far-reaching. Hate and hate symbols go against everything our two towns stand for. We will work with law enforcement officials so that those responsible are apprehended and punished,” the statement continued. “With broadening threats to Jewish institutions nationwide, growing assaults on mosques and Muslims, and attacks on civil rights gains made over the years, we call upon political leaders to not stand idly by but to speak out forcefully against all forms of bigotry, hatred and divisiveness. We cannot and will not be silent.”
The elected officials of the 27th Legislative District, which includes parts of West Orange, Maplewood and South Orange, also spoke out against the crimes. But, after expressing their disgust at recent acts of hatred, they also pointed out the glimmers of hope, in which community members have come together.
“The recent spike in bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers, along with the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, amount to nothing less than an attack on every American and every religion of the world,” a Feb. 28 joint statement from state Sen. Richard Codey, Assemblyman John McKeon and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey read. “The JCC MetroWest in West Orange, right in our community, faced a bomb threat recently. The response we saw was the essence of humanity: The Christian church nearby offered refuge to the children of the JCC’s pre-school so they did not have to stand out in the cold rain as the building was being secured. These types of selfless actions of humanity should give all of us hope that the radical and disgusting actions of the very few will do nothing more than bring us all closer together.”
Following recent acts of hatred, many Jewish institutions across the nation have tightened security and are searching for ways to respond that will foster a safe atmosphere while encouraging dialog.
“We need education and dialog, especially among children,” Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange said in a recent email. As for what individual community members can do, Cooper advised: “Be vigilant, but not anxious or alarmed. Don’t dismiss or ignore comments or gestures that seem hateful, even if the person making the comment thinks they’re just being casual or humorous. And, most important, be proud of who you are. Don’t ever let haters have their way by making others feel they must hide who they are.”
According to Cooper, he first learned about the graffiti at the reservation via Facebook.
“My initial reaction was twofold,” Cooper said. “First, I wasn’t shocked or surprised. Given the pace of anti-Semitic activity in the country, it didn’t seem shocking for this to happen in our area. I also felt an urgent need to share the information with my congregation and do what I could to make such activity known. We live in a supportive community whose residents respect diversity and tolerance; they are the greatest, most needed response to hate-fueled vandalism.”
Cooper added that the synagogue has a security guard on duty Sunday mornings — one of the synagogue’s busiest times of the week, when students are present and meetings occur — but that the synagogue is considering expanding those hours.
“I believe that we need to be more proactive to face the rising anti-Semitism in this country, starting on college campuses,” Rabbi Marc Spivak of Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange said in a recent email. “We have had a program at Congregation Ohr Torah where we bring experts in to speak to high school students on how to defend Israel on campus and how to deal with anti-Semitism. Many of us do not know how to respond when verbally attacked and especially when Israel is concerned. Educating the public and pressing our elected officials are the best ways we can fight back.”
In response to recent acts of anti-Semitism, Spivak said that the Ohr Torah board has hired a security guard for Shabbat and has reached out to the West Orange Police Department to monitor the synagogue. Also, the synagogue will employ security guards at all events in the building. But, he added, it is incumbent on congregants walking around the area to be vigilant.
“I feel strongly that one can not give in to terror threats,” Spivak said. “Israelis go on with life with constant threats from all sides and do not let it bring them down. We have to be vigilant in speaking out against threats and protecting ourselves, but we should go on with our lives and not allow it to change who we are or what we believe in.”
Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange feels the same way, saying in a recent email that the community must stand together and refuse to allow hate to persist.
“When a community is attacked — in any way — and stands up in the face of it, they send the message that we will not be intimidated and we will not accept this,” Cohen said. “More importantly, however, when people, who are not members of the community who have been on the receiving end of the bias, stand up with that community, they amplify the message significantly.” Cohen cited instances of Jewish and Muslim communities coming together to support each other following vandalism to Jewish cemeteries and a mosque in Texas being destroyed by arson.
Cohen also stressed that a strong government response can help stem the tide of hatred.
“Within hours of the graffiti being reported, the mayors of both South Orange and Maplewood issued a strong message of support that made clear that our towns stand for inclusion and that we celebrate our diversity,” Cohen said. “Sadly, the responses from the (Trump) administration have been, to my mind, too little too late. For the president to wait until he addressed Congress to speak out on the growing number of bias incidents, especially after, just hours earlier, he suggested the JCC bomb threats might have come ‘from the reverse’ — i.e., false flags — is troubling. Leadership is important and we need to see more of it.”
But Cohen also preached looking at each incident with a critical eye and reserving judgment until all the facts are in. He said what he saw at the reservation was quite different from what he had expected.
“Yes, there was graffiti that was anti-Semitic but there was also graffiti with different symbols and words,” Cohen said. “And while some of it was hateful and vulgar, other graffiti was simply stupid. It suggested to me that, in this case, this was hateful but not specifically or exclusively anti-Semitic.”
Nevertheless, in light of everything going on, Cohen said that his synagogue is working to be well-prepared and vigilant. He also thanked the South Orange Police Department, which he said has been “incredibly responsive” throughout the years.
Similarly, Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange is working closely with the WOPD, the mayor and the Township Council to ensure safety. According to Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, they “are all very supportive and concerned about the safety and security of our community and township.”
Zwickler said in a recent email that the graffiti at the reservation “horrified” him and that the country needs more constructive conversation to combat such hatred.
“That fact that this happened so close to home sent shivers down my spine,” Zwickler said. “I think education and dialog are our only tools to combat hate. When people feel badly about themselves, instead of turning internally and addressing their problems, they turn to hate others.”
And it is not just synagogues and JCCs feeling the heat. Golda Och Academy in West Orange has, according to Head of School Adam Shapiro, always taken security seriously, and now — with the recent graffiti so close to the school — is no exception.
“Initially I was both angry and disappointed that something like this would happen so close to home,” Shapiro said in a recent email. “After giving myself a few minutes to process, my mind was immediately taken to a place of hope and pride in our community. Together with the South Orange Parks Department, members of our local clergy jumped into action right away to assist in the cleanup effort and later that night there was a solidarity rally to stand up to this kind of hate. Our towns said, without hesitation, that hate has no place here and that powerful message is one that gives me confidence for the future.”
As the head of a school, it is unsurprising that Shapiro advocated for education to combat anti-Semitic activity, such as offensive graffiti.
“Here at Golda Och Academy we teach our students to advocate for themselves and think critically about the world around them,” Shapiro said. “History teaches us that at difficult times such as these — when injustices rise up around us — that we all must stand up and speak out in a morally just and ethical way. The world we live in today is calling for that type of action and when we stand up together and speak out with one voice against this type of hate speech, vandalism and other threats, we are much stronger.”
For those feeling anxious about this state of affairs, the Essex County chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women offers “The Growing Threat of Anti-Semitism and Intolerance – Tools for Families” on Wednesday, March 15, at 9:30 a.m. For details about this program and to register, call 973-740-0588 or send an email to [email protected]
Photos Courtesy of Mark Cooper