MAHOPAC, N.Y.— Between Jan.18 and Feb. 20, there were 176 incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States, ranging from vandalism and graveyard desecrations, to bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers. Twenty-eight of them were in New York State.
While none of those crimes took place in Mahopac or its neighboring municipalities, community leaders are being proactive to make sure such hate crimes stay clear of Putnam County, which is considered one of the safest counties in the state by the Division of Criminal Justice Services.
On Thursday, March 30, elected officials from the local, state and federal levels got together with law enforcement officials, clergy and educators for an anti-Semitism forum at Temple Beth Shalom in Mahopac to discuss the phenomenon and how to keep it from coming here.
The reoccurring theme throughout the evening was community unity—communicating and working together on a united front to raise awareness—starting at home and then in the classroom, as well as in churches and synagogues and civic organizations.
“Education is the second most important thing; home is the first,” said Major Robert Nuzzo, commander of Troop K for the state police. “It has to be stressed at home; kids have to see it from their parents.”
Dan Ricci, a Mahopac High School teacher and the Putnam Valley town historian, said instilling a sense of tolerance in students and stamping out bigotry before it begins is something teachers in the Mahopac School District take seriously.
“It can’t be tolerated and there is no compromise,” he said. “For teachers, on our end, it has to be pre-emptive. We teach it in the classroom and it is imperative for the kids to understand not to prejudge. I think most of the kids in this community are smart enough that they wouldn’t be drawn into that ideology. But I still continue to try and drive that point home.
“The love of community is one of the things that is stronger than some of those elements out there,” he added. “It’s great to be here with this common mission in mind and standing together against whatever influences are out there.”
Putnam County Judge James Reitz said one of the reasons the area hasn’t been victimized by such attacks is because of the cooperation between government, police, community leaders and the schools. He said they all work together.
“I think that is what we are doing here tonight,” he said. “We really work together to solve problems,” Reitz said. “But the thing that has changed the most is that our kids are growing up so much quicker and get exposed to things that before they would never have.”
Sheriff Don Smith agreed, saying that local law enforcement cooperates to prevent and investigate hate crimes, from the state police to his office to the Carmel police. Carmel Police Chief Mike Cazzari and Supervisor Ken Schmitt, a former Carmel police officer, were part of the panel.
“We are all in this together; anti-Semitism should not be tolerated,” Smith said. “We are truly blessed with great law enforcement and we all work together. We are here to help.”
Smith also emphasized the important roles the schools and civic organization play.
“It’s bigger than law enforcement. It’s also about the schools,” he said. “Putnam County has great schools; it’s one of the reasons why people move here. We have great service organizations: the Rotary, Elks, Lions, you can go on and on. And this county is a very giving place with things like the heart walks and fundraisers for cancer; there is a lot of love in Putnam County. Putnam County is not perfect, but I believe it’s a very magical place.”
Putnam County District Attorney Bob Tendy said that he and his staff go through training to prepare for hate crime investigations and prosecutions.
“Everyone on my staff has to take training on hate-crime prosecution. I just finished my training in January,” he said. “If there is anything going on that you think may be a hate crime or anti-Semitism, call us. It is something we are constantly aware of. It’s not like we think, well, there hasn’t been any murders in Putnam County in a while so we don’t worry about it. We are always aware of it; we take refresher courses all the time.”
Tendy said his background makes him especially aware of the impact hate crimes can have on a community.
“I prosecuted hate crimes when I was a prosecutor in Manhattan. And I have defended people accused of hate crimes when I was a defense attorney,” he said. “Some of [the perpetrators] are confused; some are misguided; some of them are genuinely evil; some are sick. But we all take it personally. This is something that affects our community not just as religious people, but also as Americans.”
Rabbi Sarah Freidson of Temple Beth Shalom recalled how vandalism at a local Jewish cemetery affected her when she was first starting out.
“My first congregation was in Rochester, N.Y. I used to go to Stone Road cemetery up there, which was desecrated last month,” she told the crowd. “Gravestones were turned over and it was not the first time that cemetery was attacked.
“In Judaism, [burial] is considered one of the highest acts of care we can do for someone and when I think about that sacred place being desecrated, it hits me in the gut.”
Tendy, who married a Jewish woman, said, he too, takes such acts personally.
“When I encounter it, it hurts,” he said. “My daughter considers herself Jewish and it hurts. I am very concerned with what is going on in the world today. The chatter has changed, maybe because there are so many computers; maybe the media makes it bigger, I’m not sure. But I am hearing a lot of anti-Semitism in the world. And if you understand history, that should scare the hell out of you because it’s not in the shadows. It’s right out there.”
Freidson agreed, noting that while acts of anti-Semitism have yet to creep into Putnam, it can take on more subtle forms that people need to be on guard for
“Luckily, anti-Semitism hasn’t touched us here the way it has in some other places, yet it seems that culturally there has been an acceptance of saying hurtful things to each other,” she said. “I am not only talking about anti-Semitism but name-calling and bigotry and hate speech. It seems more acceptable in the Internet Age, hiding behind technology. It’s not acceptable and it makes us vulnerable.”
Somers Councilman Anthony Cirieco attended the forum to show that Mahopac’s Westchester neighbor to the south stood in solidarity with the town and Putnam County.
“I thought it was important for us to come; we take this very seriously,” he said. “This is an important issue to us in Somers. Our schools and our town have a lot of programs about tolerance. I can’t explain the dark side of this human condition, but it is important we get together and we all push back. And I think that is why we are all here. We are here to work with you and show our support.”
Cirieco agreed with the other panelists that schools, police and government working in unison is the way to conquer the problem.
“As a policy maker, this has to be a coordinated response between education, law enforcement and legislation,” he said. “This is Old Testament stuff and it’s not to be dismissed. It takes a full-court press to put sunlight on this issue.”
Susan Spear, who was representing Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, said the senator was deeply concerned with the rise in anti-Semitism and hate crimes over the past few months and cautioned Putnam County not to relax just because it hasn’t been victimized yet.
“The senator is deeply disturbed by the growing number of incidences that have been occurring recently—from a Jewish cemetery desecrated close to here in Orange County to bomb threats at JCCs as close as Westchester to swastikas painted in public places,” she said. “The senator is trying to build the resources you need to protect yourself. She appreciates that the leaders of all faiths have come together to condemn these acts. It has been very inspiring.”
Panelists said that one way to defeat such crimes to be aware and report anything out of the ordinary they might see.
Nuzzo said people shouldn’t be afraid to call the police, even if they are unsure or afraid.
“If you think it warrants police attention, call. I rather the public call 100 times for nothing than the one time they don’t call and it’s a crime,” he said. “If there is something you think is suspicious or you think is not right, call and we will investigate. We have people who are trained specifically for this.”
Ricco agreed that it was important for the community to be proactive, but said he believes forums such as the one last Thursday are all part of the arsenal that can be used to defeat anti-Semitism and hate crimes in general.
“We don’t want to leave ourselves open to the idea that it could work its way into the community,” he said. “I think we are moving in the right direction.”
“Part of it is getting involved,” agreed Carmel Councilman Frank Lombardi, who was representing state Sen. Terrence Murphy. “Religion is not something that should divide us. Get involved; let’s do things together.”