When Anti-Semitism Hits Close to Home

The Mid-Westchester JCC

The Mid-Westchester JCC

The parking lot was full. Inside the brown building, pre-schoolers laughed and talked as they rolled on the gym mats copying the actions of their instructors. Others were in their classroom, attentive to the story their teacher narrated.  An elderly man was escorted to his physical therapy session, young mothers walked out after their exercise session, and children and adults swam in the indoor pool.

On this late winter morning, there were no outward signs that a day earlier, on Monday, the Mid-Westchester Jewish Community Center in New Rochelle had to evacuate because of a bomb threat.

This center was among others in Westchester county, Buffalo and Syracuse to receive bomb threats in a phone call. On the same day, Jewish community centres and schools across 11 states got similar calls. This follows on the heels of the desecration of the Jewish cemeteries in St Louis and Philadelphia. And on Tuesday, a church on the Upper West Side was vandalized with a swastika painted on its door.

For this Jewish Community Center, Monday was the first day of operations after the winter break.  At 10:45 a.m., according to an email from the center, the center received a bomb threat over the phone. The building was evacuated immediately. There were about a hundred children, between the ages of 2 and 5 years, and a similar number of adults,according to an employee at the center.

“The wave of anti-semitism is coming closer to home,” said Susan Kleinman, mother to a 15 and 13- year old. “Though I am not surprised by it.”

Neither was the Jewish Community Center. It had been anticipating an untoward incident. After the threats to 16 other centers like it in nine states in early January this year, Karen Kolodny, the executive director wrote to the patrons on Jan. 10, assuring them that they had stepped up security at this center.

According to the Scarsdale Village Manager Steve Pappalardo, the Scarsdale and New Rochelle police departments and the Scarsdale Volunteer Ambulance Corps  successfully evacuated everyone at the center and brought them back later when the center was declared safe.

The communities of Scarsdale, New Rochelle, White Plains and Hartsdale in the Westchester are about 40 percent Jewish, according to a 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York by the UJA Federation of New York. . Seventy percent of the households belong to a synagogue and irrespective of whether they identify as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Secular and  over 70 percent of the residents said their Jewish identity was very important to them.

Many have been troubled by the anti-Mexican rhetoric of President Trump during his campaign and the executive order against Muslim countries. His comments in his address to Congress on Tuesday denouncing the attacks on Jewish properties and the racist attack on an Indian in Kansas were also met with skepticism here.  “Once the president disparages Mexicans and Muslims, that gives license to everyone to voice their brand of racism, anti-semitism and hatred,” said Kleinman. “Honestly, I don’t know what will come next.”

Many in the neighborhood shared Kleinman’s opinion.  On Tuesday, the bomb threat, and what it means to the community was the subject of discussion at coffee shops and local FaceBook group chats all over the county. Tim Quirk,  who grew up in Scarsdale, said he was still angry that Trump left out any mention of Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day. He was also appalled how Trump took it as a personal affront when a reporter asked him how his government would be responding to the uptick in anti-Semitic attacks. “I’m honestly flabbergasted anybody would dispute the notion that Trump and Bannon bear some responsibility for all this,” said Quirk.

As a hub of activity for Jewish, and non-Jewish, residents of the area, the Mid-Westchester Jewish Community Center buzzed with the news of the latest developments earlier in the week.  IT runs  a number of programs that are attended by residents of the neighboring towns of Scarsdale, New Rochelle, Mamaroneck and White Plains. Americans and expatriates from diverse backgrounds patronize the center – Europeans, Asians, South Asians and South Americans. Children attend pre-school and after school programs; there is a daycare for working parents, a gymnasium, dance studio, fitness center and indoor swimming pool that is used by adults and children alike. Physical therapy and movies are part of special programming for adults.

Lord Ganesha, the Hindu god of beginnings

Inside the building, paintings by Pranav, a special needs Indian-American child brighten up the walls on both sides of a long corridor near the entrance; among them were pictures of popular Indian gods like Ganesha, the god of beginnings and patron of arts and sciences.

“This is a place of utter cuteness,” said an employee at  the center, who did not want to be identified. “It is hard to believe that someone would want to destroy it.”

Stuti Schoetz’s daughter, Anya visits the community center for dance every Monday afternoon. Last Monday, Schoetz decided to keep Anya home. “I was worried that maybe the bomb had not been found,” said Schoetz. “And the bomber would detonate it when the center was full of people.”

Elsewhere, other centers lost students because of the bomb threats. In Orlando, 50 children were withdrawn from the local Jewish community cener, and 12 children left the one in Albany. But Schoetz said she has no plans to withdraw her daughter from the center. Neither does her sister-in-law whose children come to the center for programs twice a week.

“We are all in this together,” said Schoetz, an Indian married to a Caucasian American, referring to a recent attack in Kansas where an Indian-American aviation engineer was killed in an alleged hate crime. “This is our community center. We have to fight this hate together.”

According to Kleinman, after Sandy Hook, most of the parents in the United States, irrespective of their color or religion became aware that their children might be in danger anywhere they go. But she says she has faith in the security protocols that will keep her children safe.

“We will not stay home from school. We will not stay home from synagogues.” said Kleinman. “The bomb threats are meant to scare us to not leave home. I am an American, and I will not be intimidated.”