Defeating hatred is no walk in the park

The aggravated harassment we experienced cannot be compared to the massacre that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

April 20, 2019 21:19
4 minute read.
Ben Roethlisberger

A detailed view of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's cleats during the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, November 2018. (photo credit: TOMMY GILLIGAN-USA TODAY SPORTS)


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After a long cold winter, spring arrived this past Saturday in New York City. Eager to take advantage of the warmth and sunshine, my wife and I went for a walk in Riverside Park, abounding with budding crocuses and daffodils.

Enjoying our first stroll of the season, we noticed a group of boys on bikes riding in the center of the walking path at a pace that seemed faster than usual. Moving to the side, we anticipated that this group of bikers would simple ride by, enabling us to resume our walk in the park.

However, as the bicycles passed by, I noticed that these young riders were moving their hands and screaming things at me that truly did not register at first. Suddenly I understood that these teens were gesturing the slitting of a throat and shaped their hands into guns pointed at us. We were already on the side on the path, but they steered towards our direction to push us off the path completely.

To punctuate their intentions, the final boy in the pack pointed at me and my kippah and repeatedly yelled, “You fucking Jew. The Holocaust never happened.”

The episode was over as quickly as it began, yet the shock enveloped us immediately. Did that really happen? Initially Julie and I tried to believe it was a childish prank, but there was nothing childish or amusing about it. When bystanders asked if we were alright, their concern constituted a reality check that this episode reached beyond the pale of acceptable behavior.

In order to report this incident, we sought out the police. Frankly, I worried about the harm these boys could have on another unsuspecting target on the walking path. Within minutes, an NYPD patrol car arrived. They asked if we were the ones who called and who were assaulted. We explained that we hadn’t called and thankfully were not physically harmed.

But as the police clarified who we were, it was disturbing to learn that this mobile band of hate-mongers had, in fact, physically hurt someone, beyond the verbal harassment and physical intimidation that we experienced moments before. Sadly, the police admitted that there has been a pattern of similar incidents every summer. With this gang seemingly vanishing off the grid, the thought of these youth riding on with reckless abandon made me worry.

WALKING HOME from Riverside Park, I was shaken emotionally by this incident. This is not my first experience with antisemitism. In suburban Boston of yesteryear, pennies were thrown at me as a kid, and name calling was not uncommon. I grew up hearing how my great-grandfather fled Russia after the Kishinev pogrom in 1903. He didn’t move his family halfway across the world to America for opportunity, rather he came because he didn’t want to be a target anymore. America was supposed to be different.

The aggravated harassment we experienced cannot be compared to the massacre that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. However, this hate incident and continuous threatening antisemitic graffiti from coast to coast seemingly indicate that our society is in turmoil.

Coincidentally, this hate incident took place on April 13, the birthday of the third US president, Thomas Jefferson. Before his death, Jefferson dictated the inscription on his tombstone in Monticello: “Here was buried, Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.”

In our age of self-branding, it might be hard to fathom that Jefferson demanded that his legacy focus on more than the impressive offices he held. Rather, he yearned to be remembered for helping to found a nation with democratic ideals, establishing an institution of higher learning to expand our understanding of the world and those around us, and writing a statement of religious freedom for his state that would set a standard for the rest of the nation.

In just a few days the Jewish people around the world will celebrate Passover, our festival of freedom. The book used at the Seder is called the Haggada, which translates as “the telling.” This name relates to a parent’s obligation to teach their children about the Israelites’ arduous journey to freedom and the shared responsibilities that come with it. Further, every generation is supposed to see themselves as if they left Egypt, signifying the challenges that enslave them. This year, I am more committed than ever to teaching our sons about the value of religious and political freedom, as well as ensuring that this message reverberates beyond our table and spiritual community.

When I looked in the eyes of the youth who intimidated us in the park, I was saddened by the hate that appears to enslave their souls. I wish I could invite them to our Seder to create bridges of understanding at a time when the world needs it most. I wonder whether they understand that their harassing and menacing behavior rides against what this country stands for.

Strolling with our loved ones without fear should be a right enjoyed by all citizens. Unfortunately, I learned this weekend that America still has work to do to actualize its highest ideals, and that defeating hatred will not be a walk in the park.

Rabbi Charles Savenor serves as the director of Congregational Education at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.

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