Anti-Semitism at Amity High School leaves many wondering ‘how could this happen’ here?

Rabbi Michael Farbman at Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven in Orange.

Rabbi Michael Farbman at Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven in Orange.

Shocking revelations of rampant anti-Semitism at Amity High School left many wondering: “How could this happen in a wealthy, educated community with a high Jewish population?”

The answer, simply put, experts say, is that hate knows no socioeconomic boundaries and happens in every community — rich, poor, white, black.

“None of these (wealth, education) are protection from the outside world,” said Andy Friedland ADL Connecticut office associate director. “A high percentage of hate comes from ignorance, but a person could have all the education in the world and there could be something different affecting them.”

The Amity community was stunned Monday when dozens of students, many of them Jewish, streamed to the podium at a Board of Education meeting with compelling testimony about a longstanding climate of anti-Semitism in the school.

Students said they were “horrified and terrified,” by the sight of Swastikas on a bathroom stall and desk, as well as hate talk from certain groups in the hallway saying, “We are the Nazis” and “The Jews Deserve to die.”

One student said she shouldn’t have to hear Holocaust jokes since family members survived it. Teenagers wept, as they spoke of being afraid to walk to their cars. Adults, too, spoke about anti-Semitism emerging in the community — houses being egged, a Facebook meme showing a Holocaust oven with the family name appearing on it.

In what was apparently an orchestrated effort, each teen ended their comments with, “I do not feel safe here.” Many were members of BBYO, a Jewish teen movement.

Hundreds of teens and parents packed the small meeting room, spilling into the hallway. The teens went before the BOE as any other citizen would because they perceived the administration had not taken their concerns of anti-Semitism seriously enough.

One teen said that even as she was in a class learning about the similar genetic makeup of every human being, she found a Swastika drawn on the desk.

“I was reminded of the hate that tears us apart,” she said.

Hate has been around since the beginning of time, said the Rev. Shepard Parsons, pastor of First Christ Church, and one of many on a list the community can reach out to regarding the Amity situation.

He said hate began with Adam and Eve’s two sons, Cain and Abel; Cain killed Abel, according to the Bible.

Parsons said a branch of theology wrestles with the question, “How can there be an all-powerful and good God with evil in the world?”

Parsons said there really is no answer to that, so the next question is, “When we see evil, ‘What are we going to do?”’

He said you identify it, confront it, look to overcome it.

That’s just what Amity High School did after hearing the stories. The morning after the meeting they went into quick action, beginning with administrators acknowledging student pain in an email. The school immediately provided counseling, brought the anti-Defamation League in to conduct workshops and devise a longer-term education plan. A day later, Amity officials also brought to the table rabbis, other religious leaders, educators and community members to face the beast head on.

Amity even upped security inside and outside the high school so students felt safe.

“In Hebrew and Christian scripture, there are stories of people confronting evil and the great hope in the end is it will be overcome, and God’s justice will be love and peace in the world,” Parsons said.

Friedland said Amity is not alone — ADL Connecticut responds to numerous high schools and middle schools in the state regularly — at a rate of about once a week — to address problems involving not only anti-Semitism, but racism, LGBTQ and gender identity discrimination, xenophobia. He wouldn’t give specifics, citing confidentiality.

Friedland said the biggest thing he is learned is that one can’t make assumptions or generalizations about kids or community because its everywhere. Anti-Semitic hate crimes happen most often in places with many Jews, he said.

The anti-Defamation League uses education, tailored to the situation to fight hatred and bigotry.

He said there is a spectrum — from organized hate groups to a minor who may have seen something on television and is trying to get attention, the latter of which can turn to hate, he said.

The ADL teaches students they can be a perpetrator, target, ally or bystander, with an emphasis on not being the latter two.

“We try to address the actions and their impact,” Friedlander said.

“We are not coming in with a magic wand,” and it takes time, Friedlander said.

The ADL speak at various venues with people who personified hate at one time, such as former members of Westboro Baptist Church and white supremacists.

In the case of Westboro, Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of the founder, decided to leave after someone on Twitter asked her why she believed this? Her sister Grace followed.

The commonality in those extreme stories of change is that someone wanted to understand them (the haters) and they developed genuine connections rather than a “place of acceptance” in a group, Friedland said.

Sometimes the attraction to being a member of a group is that it’s a way to simplify life — break it down to good guys, bad guys, right and wrong, Friedland said.

He said the desire to be seen, heard and accepted can be underlying reasons why people join extremist groups.

Friedland said he did not want to comment on the quality of Amity’s response to the crisis, because it wouldn’t be fair to other districts he wasn’t ever asked about.

“Within 48 hours of the Board of Ed meeting, BBYO members at Amity told me that school was different, that the climate at the school had improved drastically,” said Tyler S. Pepe, regional director for BBYO Connecticut Valley Region. “I know that Amity has listened to the students, and that the students have listened to each other… Allies are proud to show that they stand with their Jewish classmates.”

Rabbi Michael Farbman of Temple Emmanuel of Greater New Haven, located in Orange, said he thinks Amity is taking the right steps, but that the situation “is not as simple or straight forward as one would hope.

“Amity of all places has multiple diversity and tolerance programs in place, and is quite intentional about making this part of its regular ethos — and yet, this has not prevented the existence of ‘casual’ antisemitism, homophobia, racism and sexism in its hallways and beyond,” Farbman said.

How do innocent children beginning this world with a blank slate, learn to become haters?

The answer is complex and nuanced, experts say, but there are many factors besides their parents, such as the input they get on video games, the internet, social media, television and in any other experiences. Parental behaviors and beliefs — or any behaviorthey experience repeatedly are contributing factors.

Allison Geballe, practitioner in residence for University of New Haven, and a clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents, said she’s had experience with kids who exhibit hateful behaviors and there are multiple factors that contribute to hateful behavior, especially in adolescence.

“It’s a difficult time in development when they try to figure out who they are and they act in a kind of way to fit in with peers, “ Geballe said.

She said research shows, “Its intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding (for them) to be sitting with other people as part of a group. They feel wanted and needed.”

Geballe laments that diversity isn’t embraced more often.

“We live in a time where there’s a lot of cultural diversity. I’d like to see kids being more understanding of our diverse society,” she said.

Parsons said people hate as a scapegoat or because they are threatened by people who are different. He said there are more ways to spread that message faster than ever.

“They want to get rid of people who don’t talk and think like them,” he said. “We call them white supremacists or neo Nazis”

Pepe said the optics of hate are complex.

“More often, what we qualify as hate starts because groups don’t seek to understand each other,” Pepe said. “That doesn’t just mean ethnic, religious, or persecuted groups, but all categories of social groups.

“Humans are tribal and tribes can take on many different forms. When our tribes fail to understand each other it makes the distance between individuals in those tribes feel far. It becomes more difficult to empathize and easier to blame.”

Anat Biletzki, Albert Schweitzer professor of philosophy at Quinnipiac University, is among the many who believe much of hate these days is a result of “fear being stoked because of the type of politics we have.”

“I really view anti-Semitism as one more type of hate phenomenon,” she said. “The message right from the top is that anyone different is bad,” whether they’re Jews, LGBTQ community members, Muslims, African Americans.

A recently released FBI report states hate crimes across the United States spiked 17 percent in 2017 — marking a rise for the third straight year — with a 37 percent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes.

There were 7,175 reported hate crimes last year, up from 6,121 in 2016. The FBI’s annual hate crimes report defines hate crimes as those motivated by bias based on a person’s race, religion or sexual orientation, among other categories.

Biletzki said anti-Semitism against most Jews is in the form of vandalism to property more than violence. African Americans are subjected to more violence through hate, she said.

Biletzki said she’s sparked controversy with the vandalism comment, but said she sticks by it even after the killing of 11 at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — which she expects to be even more controversial.

She said the shooter himself said the killings were about the synagogue’s involvement with immigrants and refugees.

“The Jews are not any worse off than anyone else,” she said. “It’s much worse being black or gay in America than being Jewish.”

Of the students at Amity, she said, “The kids should just hold on to being strong and aware.”

Another element to consider in the case of the Amity anti-Semitism is the age of the perpetrators, likely high school students. It has been widely reported by Amity students that the hallway taunting and Swastika drawing is being done by members of the football team and that they were given a one-day suspension.

School officials cannot confirm any of it, citing privacy rules.

At Monday’s meeting, the crowd called for tougher measures against the perpetrator students — asking other students to call them out — and suggesting they face federal hate crime laws and be expelled.

But William Carbone, former executive director of the Court Support Services Division of the state of Connecticut’s Judicial Branch, and now a professor in the criminal justice department at University of New Haven who teaches about juvenile justice, said there is good reason for having a separate system for young offenders.

In the Amity case, he said “These are all kids who are going through adolescence and kids are like sponges, absorbing everything.”

He said biology, psychology and neuroscience show they are not yet forming their own opinions or conclusions, so they’re not at an age where “you can’t hold them totally responsible. “

The part of the brain that governs decision making is not done developing until sometimes into the early 20s, he said.

“They’re not short adults,” Carbone said. He said with kids and hate crimes there should be more emphasis on changing their behaviors.

Farbman said he believes teens and adults need to be held accountable for their actions and “Brushing things off because ‘boys will be boys’, or ‘teenagers’ can easily lead to adult behavior of the same kind.

“Judaism teaches the importance of teshuvah, repentance, which is ultimately about fixing the wrong we have caused, and learning to avoid the same pitfalls,” Farbman said. “It is a message to all of us, not teenagers or adults — but it certainly is a lesson worth learning early on in life.”