MONTCLAIR, NJ - Chair of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, James Harris criticized Hasidic Jews at a community forum in Montclair on Monday night, earning a sharp rebuke by Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah.
Montclair Councilwoman Renee Baskerville hosted the forum to discuss topics that ranged from affordable housing, rent control, recent acts of bias in the community, education and mental health. "This is an opportunity to share concerns...and discuss how we can collectively move forward...and work toward integrity and interconnectedness," she told the crowd. She added that by inviting community leaders to share what has been accomplished, it helps to, "...lay the platform for the coming season as we figure out how we're going to collectively move forward and rid ourselves of obstacles..."
Baskerville introduced Mayor Robert Jackson who said, "I do believe we have made progress on a number of issues in the town. Our fiscal condition, our infrastructure, and we've made some additional improvements in terms of housing."
He spoke of a key highlight of providing affordable housing for Montclair residents only, as one of the initiatives the administration has accomplished. Jackson stated that he hopes to accomplish more in the coming year.
Montclair Housing Commission co-chair William Scott followed by speaking of affordable housing and elaborated on the progress Jackson had spoken of. To which, Baskerville replied, "I spoke to people who are angry and in despair. ...People are forced to leave before they wanted to because they couldn't keep pace with the increasing rents."
The forum became a cause of concern for some when Harris took to the microphone.
During his commentary, which lasted nearly twenty minutes, Harris stated that he was not speaking as a representative of the NAACP, where he serves as Chair of the Education Committee, but as Chair of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators.
He began by speaking about the diversity that had attracted him to Montclair, stating, "What I found in Montclair was very different, interesting. People got along. White folks and black folks did things together."
Harris continued, highlighting the differences between the unity he saw in Montclair and the segregation he had seen in the South, "In New Jersey, it seemed like folks got along, but they still separated themselves."
"What I discovered is that people don't automatically mix with other people when they come from segregated communities, unless it's intentional."
He then explained that in nearly 40 years of work in the NAACP, he was intentional in bringing people together over food, "it's hard not to be interacting when you're eating food."
Harris then spoke of a Baptist church that had been sold in Lakewood two years ago and the huge amount of growth seen in that community since.
Of Lakewood, he said, "The Jewish community controls the Board of Education and the City Council, but they spend huge amounts of money sending their kids to the Yeshivas and they've gutted the budget for the black and Latino students who are left in public schools."
Harris continued, "$15M went for transportation to send the Jewish kids to the Yeshivas when they couldn't get the additional funding for regular public schools."
He went on to discuss that a similar budget deficit had occurred in Jersey City.
Harris said, "So, I go to Jersey City, and I'm walking down the street with the NAACP and I see these folks in long black suits and curly locks..."
He stated that he wanted to know why they were there and the person he was with explained that they were trying to buy the properties in the neighborhood. Harris spoke of the residents' fear that they are being replaced, "...by strangers who really weren't friendly."
"The Hasidics are generally not too interactive with anybody other than themselves," Harris said.
He added that people in Jersey City may be fearful, "..because people remember Brooklyn and Lakewood."
He said, "Are we going to be displaced by these people who are not all that friendly?"
He then added that he was in Jersey City after the recent tragedy that struck the Jewish community. "I was there... after the unfortunate murder. The president of the NAACP, the secretary of the NAACP was with the Attorney General and the Governor in Jersey City saying we really have to get together and increase our relationships."
"It just so happens that that section of Jersey City has murders every single week," Harris added.
He said, "Is there a situation where some lives are worth more than others lives? Because I didn't see the governor...hanging up there...when these other shootings go down, so I think that we have to have an honest conversation. Not only are all lives important, but the response to murder has to be just as intense."
Harris went further to express, "...incidents of bias have risen everywhere, but the number one increase is race, the second is religion..." followed by LGBTQ, according to Harris.
He spoke of poor people being priced out of Montclair, stating the number of students on free and reduced lunch is decreasing. He also mentioned affordable housing, stating that residents are feeling they're being "pressured by somebody."
"The somebody is the developers. Why are we feeling like the developers are taking over all major decisions in Montclair?"
He concluded saying, "We really have to have some honest conversation."
Harris earned applause at the conclusion, from some in the audience. In response, Greenstein said that he hadn't prepared to speak, but felt obligated, after the remarks, "I really am ashamed that there was an applause here and there was not a single word to stand up, except for me...”
"If you take the word 'Hasidics' out and replace the word with 'blacks,' this whole room would be in an uproar. This whole room would be disgusted, outraged, offended and maybe some stuff would be happening in the school," he added.
"To generalize and to paint with that kind of broad brush, a situation that is so much more painful and complicated, is a sin," he said.
Greenstein said, "Jews are not the problem. Hasidics are not the problem. They're not your problem, they're not the problem. There are many problems. There are bad people out there. They're the problem. Insensitive people. They're the problem. Crazy people are the problem."
"All of those things are true and guess what? ...we're all people, all groups of people," he stated.
"But, to start baiting the discussion to focus on Jews are buying, the Hasidics are not very nice or they don't want to talk to other people, is just plain sinful," he said.
"We're all supposed to be defending each other," Greenstein added. "Every single person in here is an ally."
"So why does the conversation have to be hijacked to be into a way of talking that's superficial and its full of half-truths and complete lies and all of that kind of really unhealthy stuff," he asked.
"...Anguish, fear, anger...we all have to monitor that. Let's recognize that calling groups of people with that type of superficial, stereotypical language is part of what has created the powerful injustice that everyone in this room knows so well. ...You shouldn't tolerate people with...credentials to tell us how to think...and helping us not think," Greenstein said to applause.
Meanwhile, addressing recent incidents in Montclair including swastikas being drawn at the high school and a Menorah vandalized, Police Chief Todd Conforti said, "All of the information that has come to us so far indicates [the Menorah incident] not a bias in any way. We believe it was a 10-year-old kid who, probably could be 12-years-old, walking down the street unsupervised and knocked it over. I don't think there was any intention or anything other than a ridiculous thing to do."
Conforti said the incidents at the high school were also investigated. "We have an idea of who may have drawn the swastikas. It is an open investigation."
Baskerville pressed further to ask what could be done, saying, "If we don't stop it, then it opens the door for other things, so what do we do?"
Conforti explained the protocol for addressing biased incidents is that the matter is also referred to the Essex County prosecutor's office.
Conforti assured the crowd, "Bias crimes are not on the rise in Montclair."
"We are the keepers of our brothers and our sisters," Baskerville concluded, saying that she hopes the township and residents "...will work together in the new year on being more fair and just to all."