SUMMIT, NJ - Coming together as a community, hundreds of Summit residents from all denominations gathered to denounce prejudice, anti-Semitism, and racism at a “No Room For Hate Here” menorah lighting ceremony at Temple Sinai, held to help unite the town and assist the healing process following the recent discovery of three swastikas in two Summit schools.
The Summit Interfaith Council, made up of 19 local religious groups including the three Summit synagogues, sponsored the menorah lighting. Speakers including several area elected officials, clergy -- including the Reverend Gladys G. Moore, pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church and Convener of the Summit Interfaith Council Anti-Racism Committee -- along with Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School (LCJSMS) eighth grader Brett Colon, who shared with the large crowd a teenager’s perspective on hate crimes.
Colon said, “As a Jewish teenager, it is my duty to protect my religion’s values, and beliefs. I came to the conclusion, that an act of such malice doesn’t just offend the people it was targeted to offend. It offends all of the people in a community, who work hard every day, to make where we live a safe and welcoming place for all people. Hideous acts like this are completely outrageous, and unacceptable in any town or community.”
Colon quoted the late President George H.W. Bush: “As a community, it is our job to come back strong and make sure something like this never happens again. To assist us in working to overcome intolerance, it is timely to recall a quote from the late George H. W. Bush, who once said, ‘We are a nation of communities… a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky’.”
Reverend Moore said learning -- about both past horrors and atrocities as well as discovering "a new way of being the human family" -- will help light the way to a more inclusive and shared humanity:
"Tonight, we light this menorah together, because together we stand against hate and all of its evil symbols. We light this candle together, because together we must learn a new way of being the human family, a family that practices justice, loving-kindness and peace -- to all people, in all places, for all time. And this requires learning. It is for this very reason that our Summit Interfaith Council Anti-Racism Committee has been working so hard over these past four years to facilitate dialogues, book groups, movies and other events. We’re in this work together for life --- so that we can learn together and grow together toward being a beloved city and community, a Beacon on the hill that we know that the City of Summit can be."
She concluded her remarks by saying, "Friends, we can’t turn our heads and pretend that we don’t see what’s happening around us, because the answer isn’t blowin' in the wind -- the answer is right here -- standing before and beside you. The answer to making this world a better place is you."
Rabbi Avi Friedman, of Congregation Ohr Shalom, said that the three synagogues share one oversized Menorah, and that it is Temple Sinai’s year to house it, therefore it made sense to do the public lighting at that house of worship.
He said that the menorah was purchased about 10 years ago, but that for the last several years there was no public lighting because of “dwindling” attendance.
The Interfaith Council decided to resurrect the ceremony as a way to unite the community after the swastikas were found at both LCJSMS and Summit High School.
The crowd gathered for about 40 minutes outside the temple in frigid temperatures to hear the speeches and sing along to music which included traditional Hanukkah songs and “If I Had a Hammer.” Written by Pete Seger in 1949 and made popular in 1962 by Peter, Paul, and Mary, the song was used in the civil rights movement and raises the issues of segregation, racism, sexism, and labor rights.
The ceremony was followed with hot chocolate, donuts, and jelly donuts, or sufganiyot, a traditional Hanukkah sweet.
Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Stuart Gershon told the crowd that they were gathered “to stand up for the beauty of diversity, the power of inclusion, the wonder of mutual respect.”
“Tonight we speak up for the dignity and the infinite worth of every human being,” he said.
The discovery of the swastikas, he said, sent a “cold shiver down the collective spine” of the Summit Jewish community.
“We have come together in unity tonight to unequivocally reject any and all forms of ugly hatred in our community,” he said. “There is no room for hate against Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Sikhs, Gays, Transgenders, Refugees, Immigrants, Jews, or anyone.”
He asked everyone in the crowd to reach out and have an impact on the lives of others -- to help strengthen hearts, illuminate minds, and restore hope.
“Let us be the love, the warmth, the compassion, the empathy we want to see in our Summit community,” he said. “Love is stronger than hate.”
A statement from Rev. Blake Scalet, pastor from St. John’s Lutheran Church and president of the Summit Interfaith Council, and adopted by Mayor Nora Radest, the Summit Interfaith Council, Summit Common Council, the Mayor’s Forum on Diversity, and Shaping Summit Together, said, in part, “As people of good will, we are concerned about expressions of hate wherever and whenever they occur. When such expressions occur in a school in our own community, we believe it is important to use this as a teaching moment for our children and for the whole community. Our hope is to do more than just denounce such symbolism, but to work to build a community that values our diversity, celebrates our varied histories, and is committed to honoring and respecting all people.”
Radest addressed the crowd at Temple Sinai, saying, “There is an obvious connection between damaging words and damaging deeds. If we do not make it crystal clear, right now, that our community will not tolerate hate, we allow hate to fester.
Every time a hateful word is uttered or a loathsome symbol is drawn, each and every one of us in Summit is wounded. And our community as a whole is wounded as well. These are not just words and symbols on a wall, they are attacks on fellow students, friends and neighbors. They are not abstract attacks. They are personal.”
She said, “To my profound sorrow, I know I cannot protect the people of our city from the hate in this world. But I promise to call out hate and bias and make sure that our community addresses it head on. Gathering to show support for each other tonight is a meaningful step.”
Summit Common Council President David Naidu told the crowd that he grew up in a Jewish home where the menorah was lit every year, but that this year the sentiment behind it is different. He said, “We are a community that condemns the use of hateful symbols and speech, the ideologies that underlie them, and the individuals who seek to maliciously use them to sow fear and division. But, more importantly, we are a community that will not sit idly when this happens. For history teaches us, evil flourishes when good people are silent. Well, we will speak out, we will educate, we will show compassion, we will punish those responsible, and we will act. And, so, by lighting this menorah, we act symbolically, and we proclaim: Hate Has No Home Here.”
Rabbi Hannah Orden of Temple Beth Hatikvah, vice president of the Interfaith Council, said earlier, “No community is immune to messages of hate and discrimination, but what matters is how we respond. These incidents are nothing new, but when they happen, it can be a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent. It is an opportunity to bring into the open underlying currents of anti-semitism and racism that continue to afflict our society. It is a time to examine what we are teaching our children both at home and at school. And it is a chance to come together to state clearly that our town stands for the dignity and value of all people.”
Rabbi Gershon told his congregation, “These incidents are a sobering reminder that Hanukkah is not just about dreidels, latkes, and gift-giving... kids in our public schools are subjected to overt and covert expressions of exclusion and hate every day -- just for being Black, Latino, Muslim, Gay, Transgender, an Immigrant, Jewish. So our additional response to swastikas is to reject hatred in all its ugly forms.”
Although the hate symbols were found in the schools, the entire Summit community == residents, civic leaders, and clergy -- quickly became involved. A new Facebook group, “No Room for Hate in Summit” was created, and has grown to over 500 members in less than a week.
Friedman has been an outspoken critic of what is perceived as a lack of public response from the Summit Public Schools on the incidents. Even though this happened in school buildings, he said, the entire community is impacted. He said that the school response to this needs to be vastly different from that of other types of vandalism. Perhaps, he said, the schools are planning “great stuff,” but he said that they were not being mindful that the entire community needs to feel that they are part of the solution.
Friedman told TAPinto Summit, “Although these swastikas were found on school property, their presence has had an impact across the entire community. So, I think that the whole community wants to feel part of the process in responding to this series of events. While I understand the BOE's (Board of Education's) desire to keep things in-house, this is no longer an in-house affair. And I think the BOE needs to do a better job of communicating with the community at large about what they are doing in response to these acts. The school district might be doing all the right things, but no one outside a small circle knows. I think it would be easier to bring healing to the community if we had a sense of what the response is going to be.”
Summit Superintendent of Schools June Chang told TAPinto Summit, "As a district, we continue to look at the programming we have in place, and opportunities to enhance it. There are ongoing conversations with administration and community stakeholders in and out of the district. We are focused on the school environment being a safe space where all are respected.
Our students throughout the district have been engaged in activities that promote respect and care for one another. We will continue to have open and meaningful dialogues with our students. I am so proud of our school community; they have displayed a tremendous amount of unity and support, and have rallied together. Our students have chosen peace and positivity in their actions."
After the service, the Summit High School PTO sent an email to families with an opportunity for 30 students from Summit area high schools for “Racial Equity Facilitator Training” on December 8 and 9 for Student Leaders.
They wrote that the Summit Interfaith Council Anti-Racism Committee is sponsoring facilitator training for high school students who are willing to lead “difficult but necessary conversations on race.”
Student participants will learn skills to initiate, organize and facilitate discussions on race, particularly relating to racial bias and racist incidents within their schools, communities, and the larger society. They will gain skills to: facilitate conversations among people with different points of view and experiences; resolve conflict; give voice to teens, especially vulnerable and oppressed teens and teens of color; and seek common ground. Student leaders will learn to model and foster deep listening and respectful and empathetic interaction.
Interested students are instructed to contact Ellen Boylan at email@example.com.
Later in the evening, at the City of Summit Common Council meeting, Naidu read the following statement on behalf of the Mayor and the entire Council:
"The recent discovery of Nazi swastikas and reports of offensive speech in the middle and high school compel us, as your elected representatives, to speak through one voice about the values of this community.
We recognize that the discovery of such hate symbols can cause fear, concern and anger within our community.
We unequivocally and without hesitation or reservation condemn these hate symbols, the ideologies that they represent, and the actions of the individuals involved.
We recognize that diversity, compassion and empathy for others, and understanding each others’ cultural and religious backgrounds are strengths to be celebrated.
We believe that having frank, open discussion and education about the Holocaust and the stories of other historically oppressed peoples is necessary in the schools, community places, and at home so that those who are misinformed and uninformed can learn.
We recognize, however, that some may have malicious intent, are willing to cause harm, and when they do, we expect that those responsible to be held accountable.
We recognize that events such as these may have occurred in the past, but we will endeavor to ensure that they will not occur in the future.
Finally, we ask everyone to recognize that, despite all of our differences, when we come together, we can accomplish great things. We will not be defined by what others do, we will be defined by our own actions. And through these actions, we must demonstrate that Hate Has No Home Here."
Editor's Note: This article has been amended to include the remarks of the Reverend Gladys G. Moore.