By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – More than 20 people representing local synagogues, public school systems, police departments and social justice organizations gathered at Sinai Temple on June 25 for the kick-off meeting of a new Hampden County Hate Crime Task Force.
The attendees were invited to the meeting by Stewart Bromberg, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass.
Bromberg told the group that he wanted to form a task force because of calls he has received over the past six months from community members and school administrators reporting acts of anti-Semitism.
“In one case, one young woman was concerned for her own life,” Bromberg told the group.
The student, Bromberg said, was the victim of bullying and anti-Semitic name-calling on the school bus.
“This I found very distressing and I can’t believe that anyone in this room doesn’t agree with me that it is our responsibility to protect the children in our community. And if we can pull together something that would help us provide some education, some answers and some ideas, then I think we will be doing a great service to our community now and in the future.”
Bromberg said that the goal of this first meeting was merely to start a discussion about the issues and challenges concerning hate crimes and incidents of bias in the local community.
“What I want this task force to do is create a plan,” Bromberg explained. “We need to review the issues, …discuss solutions, and ultimately I would like us to develop a curriculum for our schools.”
Bromberg said that he hopes the task force can begin to institute some kind of anti-hate curriculum in Hampden County schools by this fall, but it won’t stop there.
“I do not expect that to be the end of this task force. I expect it to continue and build and present programs to students and the community. And I want to make it clear that this is not just about anti-Semitism, not just about religious bias. It is about every type of hate crime.”
While he would have liked to have included the Jewish Federation’s entire catchment area – which also consists of Hampshire and Franklin counties – Bromberg said that they have chosen to keep this pilot program “manageable” by first concentrating on Hampden County.
“If we find it is successful we will begin to bring it in all directions.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, 2018 was the second highest year for anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts on record. Three recorded assaults against Jews occurred in 2018, up from zero in 2017, reflecting a larger national trend of rising anti-Semitic assaults nationally – including the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Poway Chabad in California. Fires at three Boston-area Chabad Houses this spring are being called hate crimes by the local authorities.
The ADL audit says last year Massachusetts recorded the fourth highest number of incidents per state in the country (144), topped by California (341), New York (340) and New Jersey (200). There were 11 anti-Semitic incidents at Jewish institutions and schools; 59 incidents in non-Jewish K-12 grade schools; and 20 incidents on college campuses.
At the meeting, Amy Feinman, Northeast Civil Rights Counsel at the ADL, told the group about the ADL’s Peer Training program, a part of its overall World of Difference Institute which fights hate and bias in all forms. The Peer Training program teaches 7th -12th grade students to become anti-hate facilitators in their own schools.
She added that one thing that could aid in the fight against hate crimes is the effort to mandate Holocaust and Genocide education in Massachusetts public schools. A bill seeking to make genocide education mandatory by the time students in the state graduate from high school is currently being reviewed by the Joint Commission on Education in the Massachusetts state legislature.
This legislation is important, she said, because “Twenty-two percent of millennials haven’t heard of the Holocaust.”
Bromberg complimented the ADL’s Peer Training program and said that he hoped that any curriculum the task force devises could be integrated with existing curriculum like the ADL’s.
A few of the attendees states that any effort should focus on reaching younger children – elementary-aged students who absorb information and messages more readily and who are already forming their opinions about the world around them.
The group discussed what some of them saw as possible factors that may be leading to hate incidents in Hampden County schools, such as the influence of television, social media and attitudes in the home.
Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni, who was appointed to Gov. Charlie Baker’s statewide Hate Crime Task Force two years ago, attended the meeting and Gulluni explained hate crimes from a legal perspective.
“Hate crimes are statutory crimes committed like any other crime and they have elements of civil rights, etc., but there are also hate ‘incidents’ that don’t rise necessarily to the level of a crime,” he said. “But if it is problematic for a school system or a city… and does not meet the elements of the statute to qualify as a crime that my office would prosecute, [the incidents] are still affecting the victims of communities, they are still targeting an ethnicity or a race, and they are very serious… they are hate incidents, motivated by hate, bias or stereotype… so I think that is something, especially [in the schools] that we need to pay attention to and I think this task force would fall under this umbrella.”
Marty O’Shea, superintendent of Longmeadow Public Schools said that he and Bromberg began to talk several months ago.
“It followed some incidents in Longmeadow that were troubling and he and I strategized how to respond to that… We had some bathroom graffiti that was troubling and really not representative of who we want to be as a school community. Stewart and I had talked in the wake of that and talked about how to respond.”
O’Shea said that the Longmeadow schools have put together an equity and diversity community group that met in the spring and that the hope to build upon in the next school year. They have also worked with the ADL in the past.
“I’m so happy Stewart pulled this together,” he added. “I think this is a foundation of practice that we can build upon but I think when you bring all of the sectors together you have the potential to amplify that work. It was a success in terms establishing agreement among stakeholders that this is something we need to discuss collaboratively.”
“We obviously want to change the culture to prevent potential hate crimes. I agree that it should start at an early age, but I think there is a community and parent piece that needs to be included too… I think we need to be proactive instead of reactive,” said Alvin Morton, assistant superintendent of student support services for Chicopee Public Schools. “I don’t think we should roll out some kind of program when something happens. We need to start addressing it now, talking about it now and educating people now,” Morton said. “We are at the table and will see what comes out of it.”
Law enforcement officers from the towns of Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Chicopee, Holyoke, Springfield, Agawam, Ludlow, West Springfield, Wilbraham, and Hampden were all represented at the meeting.
“We opened the lines of communication on something that needs to be addressed,” said Longmeadow Chief of Police John Stankiewicz. “It’s really important that we work together and collaborate to find a way to resolve this and bring this information to the community.”
Michael Paysnick, executive director of the Springfield Jewish Community Center, knows first-hand the effect hate crimes can have on a community. In 2017 the JCC was evacuated and closed for as day when a bomb threat was written on a men’s locker room wall.
“It is a very important for all the community members to be involved in a holistic approach to hate,” Paysnick said. “The more that we can do as a community, where everyone is responsible, the more potential to make a real impact.”