Students decry anti-Semitism they say is rampant at Amity High

Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge

Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge

WOODBRIDGE — Dozens of community members and Amity High School students, many of them Jewish, expressed fear and lambasted the Board of Education and school administrators Monday night for what they perceive as a gross under-reaction to anti-Semitic symbols found at the school and hate talk in the hallways.

Students streamed to the lectern, many with their laptops, to read moving accounts of the awful feelings that were caused by anti-Semitism in recent days, each ending with the refrain, “I do not feel safe here.”

Students had pictures on their phone of a Swastika carved into a bathroom stall wall of the boy’s locker room and on a desk. They also told stories of hearing, “We are the Nazis,” being tossed around the hallways in recent days. Some Jewish families said their houses had been pummeled with eggs or vandalized in other ways.

Students emphasized the culture of hate has been growing at the school and anti-Semitism has been present for years.

Many of the students said away from the podium that they knew who the offenders were — members of a sports team — but that little was done by school officials, as the offenders received a one-day suspension.

Many speakers also noted they were outraged by a memo sent to parents by the school regarding an investigation of rumors that was generically signed and contained the line: “We have found no evidence in the high school of wide-spread anti-Semitic behaviors.”

Any anti-Semitic behavior is unacceptable and if it is tolerated will escalate, as did the Holocaust, speakers noted.

“Our school is becoming immune to anti-Semitism,” one student said.

Another student said, “It was emotionally exhausting to be in school today. The hate in this school is bigger than us.”

Students used words like “horrified” and “terrified” to express their feelings.

One student who once attended a private Jewish school and said she had looked so forward to Amity said, her voice shaking, that her Holocaust survivor grandparents wept when they heard what is going on at Amity.

Students said they are afraid to wear clothing or jewelry that expresses their Judaism. One student said she wanted to wear her B’nai B’rith Youth Organization sweatshirt to school Monday, but decided not to because she felt, “too scared.”

“This morning when I did not put on that shirt, I hid,” she said.

Students also spoke of ant-Semitic jokes being normalized.

The tears started flowing — and quickly spread through the room — when Kobi Spence, president of the school’s diversity organization, spoke.

Spence, who is black, said the stories were “breaking my heart,” and wept. She said the anti-Semitic events are a “hate crime.” She said a meeting would be held Tuesday after school and all students were invited.

One of the adults urged the students to tell what they know and “give up the kids” and called for them to be expelled, as hate crimes are a federal offense.

What made it even worse is the discovery of the symbols last Friday and the fear it engenders came after the killings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh Oct. 27 and just before Kristallnacht — or night of broken glass — on Nov. 9-10, considered the start of the Holocaust when the Nazis destroyed thousands of synagogues and businesses in Germany and Austria.

One woman, who identified herself as a trained “Holocaust educator,” said the happenings at Amity are step two on the “pyramid of hate.”

“This is a teachable moment,” she told the board.

The speakers crammed the tiny meeting room — spilling into the hallway and about 30 of 50 students in attendance sat on the floor right in front of the board.

The item was not on the agenda, but was raised during the public speaking portion at the beginning.

Interim Superintendent of Schools James Connelly, faced with the huge crowd, addressed them at the outset: “The first thing we have to do is admit there’s a problem,” he said. He said the school system can’t do it alone and that they would need the help of the students and faith-based organizations.

School board Chairman Chris Browe told the crowd the police are involved, that Amity can investigate faster than the police and that, most of all, he wanted to hear how everyone was “feeling.”

There were plenty of feelings expressed and they ran deep. Students proud of being Jewish said they felt fear, sickness that this kind of hatred could be happening in 2018 — especially at Amity because it holds itself in such high regard.

The parent of a student in the middle school said her child has faced anti-Semitism, as well.

“I don’t know how you can look these children in the eye and not do something,” she said. She said it was “offensive” Amity administrators would say they’re “just rumors.”

The vague memo from administrators reads in part: “The complaints regarding in-school incidents were also investigated by the high school administration. ... These rumors are impacting many students and their families. A message was sent to the high school faculty/staff this morning to reinforce our commitment to making the high school community a safe and inclusive environment for all of our students. If students have complaints and wish to remain anonymous, they can always submit the complaint through the “Speak Up” mechanism located directly on the District Website. We will continue to investigate any concerns that are brought to our attention.”

The memo goes on to say administration is, “working closely with students, faculty and community members, such as local clergy and the Anti-Defamation League, to discuss the concerns and mindfully plan programming to address these issues. We are committed to this work and welcome the opportunity to partner with the larger community in future conversations.”

The memo was signed, “Sincerely, ARHS Administration.”