WEST ORANGE, NJ — Upper School students at Golda Och Academy had a visit from New Jersey Attorney Gen. Gurbir Grewal on Dec. 19, and heard him speak about his job and how the Attorney General’s Office has responded to hate crimes, especially in the wake of a deadly shooting in Jersey City. That shooting is being treated as domestic terrorism, having been spurred by anti-Semitism. Also at the event was New Jersey Office of Homeland Security Deputy Director Andrew Campi, New Jersey State Police Lt. Col. Geoffrey Noble and New Jersey Director of the Division of Civil Rights Rachel Apter.
“When I was your age, I never ever thought it was possible for someone who looks like me to be in the position I’m in,” Grewal, the first Sikh attorney general in U.S. history, said at the event. “I wanted to be a writer.”
Grewal went to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, for his freshman year, dreaming of being in nature while writing his first novel. He quickly realized that he had only been to Maine in the spring and found that when the winter months descended on New England the cold weather was not for him.
“I realized I wasn’t a great writer, I didn’t like Maine that much and I was interested in international affairs,” Grewal said.
He headed south to transfer to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the hopes of becoming a foreign service officer. After he graduated, the federal government wasn’t hiring any more officers, so he came back to New Jersey to decide what to do next.
“I came back to New Jersey and thought about what to do,” Grewal told the GOA students. “And ‘Law & Order’ was on all the time. I liked Jack McCoy, the district attorney.”
The long-running procedural show inspired Grewal to apply to law school, and he graduated from law school at the College of William and Mary a few years later. He worked at a law firm at first, but that changed with the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“All of us were united in this sense of grief,” Grewal said. “But then there was a darker side. For me, that was the backlash. People would tell me to go home or call me a terrorist. I had to make a choice. What was I going to do to push back against this?”
He became a prosecutor in Brooklyn before becoming the Bergen County prosecutor, the first Sikh person to be named a county prosecutor in the country. Then, in November 2017, he was on vacation in Disney World with his family when he received a phone call from Gov. Phil Murphy, who had just been elected. Murphy asked Grewal if he wanted to be the attorney general.
“I said ‘Of the United States?’ and he said ‘No, that job is taken, of New Jersey,’” Grewal joked.
GOA seniors Eva Hale and Ben Hirsh asked Grewal questions that had been submitted by the student body, including what his proudest moment as attorney general has been so far. He said when the state of Texas sued the federal government over ending the DACA program, representatives from each state went south to make arguments in favor of the program. Apter led New Jersey’s group of lawyers, and the program was temporarily saved.
“When the lawyers from New Jersey got up, they talked about the people this would affect,” Grewal said. “And it worked. That just shows you what we can do.”
Hale and Hirsh also asked about the rise of hate crimes, such as the shooting at the kosher market in Jersey City on Dec. 10, and what Grewal and his staff can do to curb future attacks.
“I think we should all be concerned,” he said. “What’s happening is that a lot of hate crimes are coming from young people. Forty percent of them are happening on college campuses. One of the things I want to explore, especially with young people, is some sort of curriculum to give them to show them why what they did was so hurtful. I think that is a powerful tool we could use.”
Grewal stressed the importance of young people and the ability they have to make change.
“You guys are our best hope,” he said. “It’s going to be on our young people to change the way we interact with people. And that gives me a little bit of hope.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic and Courtesy of Erin Sternthal