Orange County Jewish Leaders On Edge Amid State Rise In Anti-Semitism


Jewish leaders in upstate Orange County are treading lightly in the wake of reports that three Jewish families have sued the Pine Bush School District claiming it is rife with anti-Semitism.

“That is a town that is angry,” Abbe Distelburger, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County, told The Jewish Week. “Those people are indignant and embarrassed. We have to be careful and not come across as the enemy. We want to all work together on this and mend the bridges in that community.”

Distelburger, whose federation office is 25 miles away in Newburgh, said that at the suggestion of the Anti-Defamation League her office plans to reach out to community leaders and clergy to discuss the situation.

“Maybe we can open the doors to having a countywide forum,” she said. “When you have anti-Semitism, bigotry and racism, it is usually from ignorance. … The ADL wants us to make the contacts and to see if they have to come up and do a large education program here. They will bring in professionals at our expense.”

News of the lawsuit — which alleges that some Jewish students in Pine Bush heard jokes and anti-Semitic epithets about the Holocaust, had coins tossed at them, were physically beaten and bullied, witnessed Nazi salutes and heard chants of “white power,” and were unable to get school officials to respond appropriately — came the same day it was announced that hate crimes in 2012 had reached a record high in the state.

Anti-Semitic crimes accounted for fully 82 percent of the 405 religious-bias incidents, according to a state report.

Evan Bernstein, New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said those figures are consistent with the numbers the ADL keeps. He termed them “very upsetting” and said his organization “takes them very seriously.”

Of the Pine Bush situation, Bernstein said his office was aware of the lawsuit when it was filed in March 2012 by the national public interest law firm Public Justice.

“We had concerns, but we have not heard from one person in that community,” he said. “We want to partner with the community in any way we can.”

Reaction to the lawsuit, which was first reported in The New York Times, was swift. Nearly 400 residents of the Pine Bush School District, “arms linked in defiance of a brisk autumn wind and the bitter enemy of innuendo,” gathered last Sunday “to set the record straight,” according to the Times Herald-Record.

The paper quoted one resident as saying, “We are not a group of bigots living out here in the woods.” Another said she had never heard about any anti-Semitism in the schools and believed it was unfair to portray the community in such a negative way.

Bernstein said, “Recent quotes from town residents and a former school official reflect a community deeply infected with anti-Semitism.”

But Rabbi Joel Schwab, whose synagogue, Temple Sinai in Middletown, is the closest to Pine Bush, told The Jewish Week he was surprised by the allegations in the lawsuit. He said several of his members live in Pine Bush and that “some said they didn’t experience anti-Semitism and some did — but nothing at that level.”

One of the reasons for his surprise, he said, is that Pine Bush has an anti-bullying program and is the only school district in the county to offer an elective course on the Holocaust for high school students.

“I’ve been invited to speak to that class,” he said. “I gave a history of the Holocaust and spoke of my father-in-law’s experiences in Auschwitz. As I recall, this class at one time was broadcast to other schools in the county for long distance learning.”

On Tuesday, Rabbi Schwab said he met with 25 or 30 other county and state officials to discuss “how we as a community should be approaching the allegations in the suit.” He said the meeting was convened by Acting Orange County Executive Steve Gross and included representatives of the governor’s office, the state police, the local district attorney, the county legislature and the sheriff’s department. Rabbi Schwab said he attended as a member of the Human Rights Commission of Orange County.

“It was a chance for us to express how we feel about what is happening and what we can do,” he said.

Rabbi Schwab observed that some of the behavior described in the lawsuit “is not unusual.”

“Jewish kids in schools that are not predominantly Jewish get picked on,” he explained. “It’s a form of bullying, and the button used is the fact that the child is Jewish — just as the button pushed when Muslims are bullied is that they brought down the World Trade Center.”

“In my community, almost everyone has a story about anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Schwab continued. “You might not complain, fearing it would get worse because maybe the bully would come after you for tattling on him and that if you say nothing it will stop. …What surprised me is the allegation of a physical assault. Why was that not brought to the police?”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo reacted quickly to news of the lawsuit, directing the state police and the State Division of Human Rights to investigate the allegations. Deputy Human Rights Commissioner Leticia Green said she could not comment because of the pending investigation.

On Wednesday, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, announced that he, too, would look into the matter.

Rabbi Schwab said it is common knowledge that in the 1970s Pine Bush had been the home of a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and that the man’s wife served on the school board.

“My congregants who lived there in the ‘80s and ‘90s said they did not feel overt anti-Semitism but rather social anti-Semitism … and I believe Pine Bush has tried to clamp down on racial and ethnic bullying.”

He pointed out that Orange County is shaped like a rectangle, with Pine Bush in the northwest and the chasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel in the southeast, a fact that has “created tensions with the rest of community.”

“The tensions there have exacerbated anti-Semitism in the community,” the rabbi said.

And a proposed 396-unit townhouse complex proposed for Bloomingburg, 17 miles north of Pine Bush in the southern portion of Sullivan County, has further heightened tensions. The complex would be within the Pine Bush School District, as would a proposed private girls’ school that would be opened to serve the chasidic Jews expected to move into the complex.

There is strong community opposition to the projects. One Pine Bush resident who graduated from its high school referred obliquely to the proposals when he wrote on The New York Times website that the paper’s article “is surfacing at a time very convenient to certain populations. … I think this lawsuit is money driven. Certain populations want to develop in rural New York communities where mass residence complexes have not been seen before. These populations deal behind the backs of the people who live in these communities such as Pine Bush because they do not care about others ….”

Rabbi Schwab said there is a fear among residents that if these projects are realized, they would have a negative impact on the Pine Bush School District.

“There is a fear of urbanizing Bloomingburg, which is pastoral — that they will be overwhelmed by the appearance of 1,000 or 2,000 people,” he said. “That they happen to be Jews — and insular like those in Kiryas Joel — only exacerbates it. … There is a fear that the Pine Bush School District would service the private school and that the private school would siphon funds from the education of the [public school] students. But the school has not been formally proposed and nobody has shown any numbers. But there is fear and part of the fear has to do with the issues that happened at Kiryas Joel.”

He pointed out that despite several court cases saying that Kiryas Joel could not separate from the Monroe School District, the two communities maintain their own school districts.

Distelburger, the Orange County federation president, said that although the proposed housing project and anti-Semitism in the schools are totally unrelated — she said the first complaints of anti-Semitism dated back to 2008 — the two issues have been intertwined in the minds of residents.

“I think one is going to compound the other and that people are now going to be thinking that the Jews are trying to manipulate us and deceive us,” she said. “It will exacerbate the situation. … You are taking a very small segment of the population and all of a sudden they are in the news all over the place. What are the Jews doing here? We’ll be perceived as a problem.”

The state hate crime report released last week and prepared using material from the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, found that hate crimes rose 30 percent primarily because of a sharp rise in property-related bias incidents in Suffolk County and the city. In particular, the report said, hate crimes in Suffolk rose 200 percent (from 39 incidents in 2011 to 117 in 2012) and in the city by 54 percent (from 242 incidents in 2011 to 374 last year).

Of all the property-related incidents attributed to bias, 64.5 percent were motivated by anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism accounted for 83.5 percent of reported property hate crimes against religion — a 78.4 percent jump (148 in 2011 to 264 in 2012).

Although most hate crimes last year against people were directed against gays and lesbians, the percentages of attacks against blacks and Jews were close behind with only a 4 percent spread (26 percent anti-sexual orientation, 25 percent anti-black and 22 percent anti-Jewish).

Newsday suggested the spike in Suffolk’s numbers might be attributed to the fact that the Department of Justice investigated the county’s handling of hate crimes against Hispanics following the 2008 stabbing death of an Ecuadorian day laborer. But Bernstein said he had “no real explanation of why the numbers are up.”

He speculated, however, that the number of incidents might have increased because “people feel more comfortable going to the police in the belief it is a positive way to try to solve those cases.”

Rabbi Schwab pointed out that all of these developments occurred the same week Kristallnacht — the state-sponsored attacks on Jews and Jewish property — occurred 75 years ago in Germany. He said he reminded those in Tuesday’s conference of that fact.

“Seventy-five years ago in Germany,” he said, “the levers of government were turned against Jews. I looked around the room and all the levers of power in Orange County had mobilized to fight anti-Semitism in behalf of the children in the public schools. What a tremendous change in 75 years.”