NEW YORK (Sep. 22)
A group of New York’s public school pupils, reflecting this city’s broad ethnic mix, stood on the charred floorboards of a burned-out shul in Brooklyn Thursday morning to learn a lesson about bigotry.
“Bigotry, hate, the words are abstractions. Here you see the pain and ugliness bigotry can cause,” the youngsters were told by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
He spoke in the fire-gutted interior of Orthodox Congregation Rabbinical Institute Sharai Torah in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, the target of arson, desecration and vandalism in the early hours of Saturday, Sept. 17.
His audience was solemn and attentive under the bright lights of television camera crews.
They stood in a rough circle amid the charred debris of scorched woodwork and waterlogged furnishings in what had been a classroom, with a small pulpit for worship in the center. The distinctive mildew stench of fire damage was all pervasive.
More than a dozen of the visitors were teen-agers from three high schools in the district — Midwood, Edward R. Murrow and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
About twice that number were sixth graders from P.S. 99, a neighborhood elementary school within walking distance of Sharai Torah.
They were brought together with the consent of the New York City Board of Education, and the personal blessings of school Chancellor Richard Green, to view a disaster that sent shock waves through the city.
The unusual trip, barely two weeks into the new school year, was proposed by the ADL.
All of these youngsters were aware of the outrage perpetrated in their borough. Foxman and Carol Lister, ADL’s New York regional director who escorted them, believe that seeing the havoc would have a greater impact — and be remembered longer — than fleeting images on a TV newscast.
Moreover, the students, all of whom volunteered after their teachers explained the nature of the trip, were of roughly the same age as the suspected perpetrators.
Last Sunday, a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old were arrested and confessed to the arson and destruction.
Because they are juveniles, their identities have been withheld. They were released in custody of their parents pending an appearance in Family Court.
But Dionne Boissiere, an articulate 16-year-old from Midwood High, found it hard to believe that the two could have planned and carried out the destruction.
“Where did it come from? All of that hatred?” the black teen-ager asked, in a conversation with a reporter.
Boissiere, who is president of her junior class, is convinced there was adult instruction.
The sheer ferocity of the crime has led others to suspect as much. The intruders systematically wrecked the sanctuary and study rooms, and spray painted swastikas and anti-Semitic obscenities on the walls.
Their final act of blind hate was the destruction of the congregation’s six Torahs. The offenders pulled the Torahs from the Ark, stripped off their vestments, rolled them out on the floor and then set them on fire.
Adam Friedman, a husky junior from Midwood, repeatedly shook his head in disbelief. The 16-year-old said he couldn’t imagine “anybody doing this.”
The younger onlookers from P.S. 99 exhibited a healthy curiosity. Most of them are Asian–Chinese, Korean, Indian and Pakistani.
“What will happen to the kids?” one asked referring to the suspects in custody. “How will they be punished?” asked another. “Will they go to jail?” “Will you forgive them?”
The last question came from one of the few white youngsters. Louis Galinsky, acting principal in charge at P.S. 99, identified him to a reporter as David Zaltzman, age 12.
Foxman explained that there are sins against God which only God can forgive, and also sins against fellow men.
He said that yes, the perpetrators would be forgiven eventually, but they must earn their forgiveness. If found guilty, they must be punished, Foxman said.
One Oriental youngster wanted to know “Where are the people praying now?”
He was told that a nearby congregation, Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, had “adopted” Sharai Torah, whose congregants are now using their facilities.