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When Hatred Comes to Town

When Hatred Comes to Town

Hand spray painting graffiti onto a cement wall

The front-page headline – “Swastika graffiti stirs fears” – signaled that the wave of post-election hatred and intimidation had reached Ridgefield, our small Connecticut town, ranked one of the safest towns in America.

Just before Thanksgiving, a vandal had spray-painted the hate sign in the town’s community playground.

Asked if he thought the recent election results were partially responsible for the swastika incident, First-Selectman Rudy Marconi replied, “People believe that they can express outwardly now what they’ve been feeling inwardly for quite some time.” Assuming that the culprit was a misguided youth, he added, “The sad part is our children hear and see what we say and do, and that means now, more than ever before, we have to lead by example.”

Jane Crimmins, who lives in a neighboring town and describes herself as “a person of white privilege,” took up the mantle of exemplar when she organized a “peaceful gathering” the day after Thanksgiving “to stand with people of different creeds and colors.”

The demonstration was attended by about 40 people, including Rabbi David Reiner of Congregation Shir Shalom, who addressed the crowd and declared, “Symbols of hatred will not keep us away.” The event concluded with the singing of “We Shall Overcome,” led by Cantor Debbie Katchko-Gray.

Our family has lived without fear in Ridgefield for more than 30 years, though we have always been aware of an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. Our kids were sometimes made to feel as “other” in public school, but as the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, they know that prejudice against minorities is a fact of life and that affirming rather than denying their Jewish identity is the best defense against bigotry.

Our African daughter-in-law, a Jew-by-choice, always wears a necklace displaying a Jewish star, and our son-in-law, who also converted to Judaism, has been a regular contributor to ReformJudaism.org.

I believe that hiding your Jewish identity out of fear shows weakness, and may even make you more vulnerable to an anti-Semitic attack. I came to this awareness after an earlier swastika incident in Port Washington, N.Y., where we lived in the early 1980s.

A family with a Jewish surname moved to our street at Purim time, so my wife Judy baked some hamentashen (a triangular shaped pastry customarily exchanged on the holiday), and we left a plate full on their front porch, along with a note of welcome to the neighborhood and our phone number. We never received an acknowledgment, but at Christmas time, our new neighbors invited us over to help decorate their tree. That’s when we learned that only the husband was Jewish. Our families had much in common, and we became friends.

One night, there was a loud knocking on the door from our neighbor, who was distraught. Someone had painted a swastika on his front door.

In a pained voice, he complained, “I can understand why someone would target you, Aron. You’re so openly Jewish. But why me?”

I had no consoling answer. It occurred to me later that it might be easier to terrorize a marginal or lapsed Jew than a committed Jew who knows that prejudice is the price Diaspora Jews are willing to pay to keep our traditions alive.

Those of us who have clung to the faith and ideals of our ancestors are a resilient bunch.  We are the saved remnant of Jews who have continued the Jewish journey, overcoming the twin threats of persecution in bad times and assimilation in good times.

I believe that anti-Semitism will exist as long as there are Jews, which is why swastikas do not shock me – but we cannot sit idly by when confronted by anti-Semitic provocateurs.

Jane Crimmins and the others who demonstrated public support for their Jewish neighbors give me hope. I will remember Thanksgiving 2016 more for the peace signs they displayed than for the hateful act that brought us together.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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