“Why are you here?” was the provocative question I got from a miffed local resident as I walked into Upper Saddle River’s city council meeting.
We both knew that the gathering would be dominated by residents protesting the encroachment of an eruv into their communities. For some, the idea of an invasion by Orthodox Jews sparked visible apprehension, even anger.
And there was more. Reacting to the presence of Holocaust survivor and renowned public speaker on tolerance-building, Sami Steigmann, I heard one local resident mutter (expletives deleted): “My God, we are going to have to listen to that Holocaust survivor.”
Later, as I waited patiently for my turn to be heard, I listened to public comments that since have been posted on various social media outlets. They said that accommodating Jewish observance of the Sabbath was “not their problem and not their desire.” I listened to pointed remarks about the alleged negative attributes of “those people.” I was just a few feet away from Cheryl Rosenberg, another Englewood city council member, as a resident of Upper Saddle River aggressively intimidated her and attempted to prevent her from recording his neighbors’ anti-Semitic remarks. He followed her and menacingly placed his hand and phone in front of her face and camera.
So — why was I there?
Because the Simon Wiesenthal Center is committed to combat anti-Semitism not only when it manifests in France, the U.K., Germany, and Poland, but even when it rears its ugly head in our neighborhoods. Perhaps the perpetrators here aren’t even aware of the impact of their words. We go to the meetings to educate them, and to hold people who cross the line accountable for their behavior.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center is not the arbiter about when and where an eruv should be constructed. But we are taking a leading in role in insisting that opponents who say their lone concern is to protect their community’s way of life must not pursue that goal by singling out and denigrating a specific group with discriminatory stereotyping and unabashed vitriol.
I was there, as I was at the Mahwah council meeting the week before, in an attempt to present this perspective and hope that the anti-Semitic comments that were made and the actions that were taken were motivated by fear of the unknown, not by hatred of Orthodox Jews.
The first step to combating anti-Semitism is by calling it out.
That is why I, as eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, came to these emotion-laden meetings.
I must admit that I was deeply disappointed with those residents of Upper Saddle River who chose heckling over dialogue. As the heckling continued throughout my comments, I reflected on the irony that seemingly intelligent people repeatedly insist that their town’s reputation represents openness and tolerance. Yet in the same breadth they were trying to shout down and publicly disrespect someone with a view at variance with theirs.
I hope that whatever the outcome of this debate on the eruv on the New Jersey-New York border, it will be achieved through dialogue, not litigation. We worry that protracted legal battles and emotional social media postings could increase anti-Semitic sentiment.
However the situation evolves, be assured that the Simon Wiesenthal Center will be there. We will work closely with elected officials and community activists to ensure that they all walk the walk, not just talk the talk of mutual respect and tolerance.
Michael Cohen of Englewood is the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He represents his city’s Second Ward on Englewood’s City Council, and he belongs to Congregation Ahavath Torah there.