Over 160 state municipal leaders join fight against antisemitism at Lappin forum

“This is not just a Jewish problem,” Deborah Coltin said at the March 28 forum.

By Shelley A. Sackett

SALEM — The Lappin Foundation on March 28 sponsored “Two Steps Forward Against Antisemitism,” a virtual event aimed to educate Massachusetts city and town officials on two important steps they can take to help their communities stand up to and combat the growing threat of antisemitism. The event drew 168 municipal leaders representing more than 100 localities.

Deborah Coltin, Lappin Foundation executive director, explained the summit’s goal was to educate attendees about two tools available to fight antisemitism: adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding, working definition of antisemitism, and local enactment of a proclamation to annually commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.

“This is not just a Jewish problem. Where there is antisemitism, there are also other kinds of hate,” Coltin said.

The IHRA, which has promoted Holocaust education, research, and remembrance since 1998, is the only intergovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues. With strong evidence of a recent rise in antisemitism, its experts determined that in order to begin to address the problem, there must be clarity about what antisemitism is, according to its website, http://www.holocaust­remembrance.com.

The IHRA defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Over a dozen scenarios apply the definition in the contexts of criticism against Israel and contemporary examples in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and the religious sphere.

Robert Leikind, regional director of the American Jewish Committee of New England, stressed the importance of a common framework to help governmental officials and others understand what is meant by antisemitism. “In the absence of a clear understanding of the definition, you can’t create policies to deal with it,” he said. “You can’t fight what you don’t recognize.”

So far, 35 countries have endorsed the IHRA, including the United States. Twenty states and five governors have adopted its definitions of antisemitism, including Massachusetts, when Governor Charlie Baker signed a proclamation on Feb. 18.

Peabody Mayor Ted Betten­court, honorary chair at the Lappin event, announced that the Peabody City Council unanimously voted to adopt the IHRA’s antisemitism guidelines at its March 24 meeting, making Peabody one of the state’s first to do so (Newton, New Bedford and Lynn have already adopted the IHRA definition). Mayor Bettencout also issued a proclamation on Jan. 27 recognizing it as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and January as Holocaust Education Month.

The Peabody City Council is considering adding Holocaust education to its middle and high school curriculum, Bettencourt said.

Referencing the verbal attack on Chabad Rabbis Nechemia Schusterman and Sruli Baron on Lowell Street in 2019, Bettencourt stressed that acts of hate will not be tolerated in Peabody. “Love and acceptance can triumph over hatred, intolerance, and exclusion,” he declared.

Underscoring the importance of adopting the IHRA guidelines, Robert Trestan, Anti-Defamation League New England regional director, cited a recent poll that indicated almost all American Jews say antisemitism is a problem. Furthermore, 2021 FBI statistics indicate that 60 percent of all hate crimes are against Jews.

“This is not just anecdotal. The increase in violence and antisemitic incidents is real,” Trestan said.

Sharon was the first town to adopt the IHRA definition in March 2021. Sharon community activist Robert Soffer, who was instrumental in this process, emphasized that antisemitism is as grave a danger for non-Jews as for Jews. “It is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ and indicative of all forms of hate,” he said. “If the municipal managers attending this summit truly embrace this fact, then something very important will have been achieved.”

Rounding out the list of speakers were Josh Kraft, president of Kraft Philanthropies and the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism; Jody Kipnis, co-founder of Holocaust Legacy Foundation; Lucy New and Sofia Vatnik, cochairs of the Teen Antisemitism Task Force; and Dr. Hans Fisher, a frequent speaker and Holocaust survivor who was aboard the M.S. St. Louis in 1939. The ship carried more than 900 Jews who had fled Germany and hoped to reach Cuba and then migrate to the US, but passengers were not allowed to get off the ship in Havana, and then shut off from docking in Florida. The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where more than 250 of the Jewish passengers were killed by the Nazis.

“Antisemitism is alive and well in the US,” Dr. Fisher told the Journal after the summit. “Police protection, unfortunately, is often necessary right now, but strong school education programs can be very effective in ameliorating this scourge.”

In her remarks, Kipnis urged attendees to work to get their communities to adopt the IHRA definition and proclaim January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. “Ask yourselves two questions: What have I learned? And, how can I make a difference in community,” she said.

For more information about adopting the working definition of antisemitism as an educational tool to identify and combat hate, email Robert Leikind, Director of American Jewish Committee New England, at leikindr@ajc.org. For information about the process Sharon went through to adopt the definition, email Robert Soffer at sofferrobert@gmail.com.

Holocaust Symposium prompts Danvers students and adults to become “Upstanders”

Tenth grader Nora Hass and her father Mike Hass attended the symposium.

by Shelley A. Sackett

DANVERS — When Danvers High School Principal Adam Federico decided to partner with Lappin Foundation to host a six-week Intergenerational Holocaust Symposium on Zoom, his hope was that the students and adults who attended would feel empowered to call out and fight against biased and hateful language and actions.

He more than got his wish. Based on comments during the final session on February 17, Danvers now has a community of activists ready and willing to confront hatred and ignorance.
“This is unique and special,” Deborah Coltin, Lappin Foundation’s Executive Director, told the 73 participants. “There was a call to action and you showed up. I hope you’ll rely on each other and respond,” said Lappin, who ran the symposium.

The event was created in response to antisemitism, swastikas and racist graffiti appearing more frequently in schools and community settings. Last fall, Danvers was victim to a rash of such incidents. Students who attended all sessions will receive a Certificate of Completion and credit for nine hours’ community service.

The curriculum included curated materials, primary sources, films, survivor testimony, a book read and discussion, and a closing lecture by Dr. Chris Mauriello, Salem State University history professor and Director of its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “Be an upstander, not a bystander,” he told the group. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I taking away from this?’”

Danvers tenth grader Norah Hass and her dad, Mike Hass, both attended and talked with each other after class, discussing the Holocaust and what is happening in Danvers and society as a whole. “Norah is forming her politics and thoughts on the world now, and I love seeing her think critically about history as well as current events,” Mike said.

“We don’t normally have conversations like that, so it was cool to see a new side of him. He would sometimes ask me how the meeting made me feel, and asked what I thought about it,” Norah added.

Listening to and interacting with survivors rendered the Holocaust and its horrors more real and left the deepest impact on most participants.

“Actually hearing survivors recount where they were during the Holocaust and how it affected their life is so much different from reading about it. These stories made me more aware of how it felt to be a Jew during the Holocaust. They need to be heard by more students, and the world,” said tenth grader Isha Patel.

“It takes the Holocaust from being a crime of epic proportions and personalizes it, a reminder that every person killed or who survived had a prior life, interacted with people in the town, and struggled through each day to get to the next,” said Mike Hass.

Coltin will expand this program to other communities. A community wide six-session online course begins March 2 and is open to any high school student, regardless of faith or town, who is interested in learning about the Holocaust. Newton South High School plans to host its own symposium this spring.

Also, she is working with Marblehead Village School to develop a professional development program for teachers and is assembling a team to train Salem High School to facilitate its own symposium. “The plan is to make it widely available to high schools and middle schools beginning in the fall of 2022,” she said.

In Danvers, all participants expressed both hopes for their community and a personal action plan to make that happen.

Danvers Chief of Police James Lovell, the father of two middle school students in Danvers, attended the symposium and said he was surprised to learn how much hate in our society is still rooted in the thoughts and beliefs of the Nazi party. He plans to engage community members in conversation about the difficult national and local issues facing them.

Principal Federico plans to expand experiences like the symposium to the greater community, with Danvers High School leading the way for more understanding and kindness.

To that end, he and Tess Wallerstein, a Jewish tenth grader, are already in the process of planning a project to help bring the lessons of the symposium to more students and adults. “It’s imperative for everyone to understand major historical events so they don’t repeat themselves,” she said. “I hope that residents of Danvers will continue to educate themselves and others about these important lessons in history.”

Dave McKenna, co-founder of the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee and Superintendent of Jewish Cemeteries of the North Shore, plans to continue speaking out when he sees division. “I am continually amazed at just how close beneath the surface is our ability to be divided and encouraged to hate someone else over the slightest difference of opinion, appearance, religion, belief or lifestyle,” he said.

Students Patel and Hass will stand up and encourage their peers to do the same.

“Now that I know how far racism can go, I want to make sure some of the students at my school don’t continue with their racist behavior,” Patel said. “They need to learn how harmful it is.”

“I have a job to bring awareness and act as a representative for the Jewish community at Danvers High School, especially since there are so few Jewish students,” Hass said. “I want to tell the students they aren’t alone in this fight.”

Danvers Holocaust Symposium asks ‘What does the Holocaust have to do with me?’

50th anniversary revival of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ storms the stage
Three swastikas have been found at Danvers public schools since the fall.

by Shelley A. Sackett

DANVERS — Last year, Danvers was in the news, but not for reasons that made its leaders and community members proud. Amid allegations of antisemitism, racism and homophobia in the Danvers High School hockey team, there were complaints about lack of transparency and accountability in the school and police departments. Then, in November, swastikas were discovered at the Holten Richmond Middle School and in December, a swastika was found at Danvers High School.

In response, about 200 people gathered for a “vigil of inclusion” organized by the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee and the Danvers Interfaith Partnership. But Danvers officials, especially the School Committee and administration, wanted to go further.

To that end, Danvers Public Schools partnered with Lappin Foundation to host a six-week Intergenerational Holocaust Symposium on Zoom. The free program began Jan. 6 and includes 39 students and 34 adults.

“We need to continue to work on ensuring our school has a safe and respectful climate and empower all our community members to call out and fight against biased and hateful language and actions,” Danvers High School Principal Adam Federico said in an email. “This work needs to be done by students, faculty and families.”

Consisting of curated materials, primary sources, films, survivor testimony, a book read and discussions, the symposium was created in response to antisemitism, swastikas and racist graffiti showing up more frequently in schools and in community settings. Danvers is the fourth symposium (the others were at New England Academy and Duxbury and Newton North High Schools) and the first to be open to the entire community.

“I believe education is our best hope. Opening the symposium to students and adults in Danvers to learn together has been especially powerful,” said Deborah Coltin, who is Lappin Foundation’s executive director and also runs the symposium.

So far, participants couldn’t agree more.

At the beginning of the first session, Coltin posed the open-ended question, “Why are you here?” Many answered that they wanted to make a difference in Danvers and to be on the side of not making light of recent events. “I want to be rebooted in my attitudes,” a student said.

Tess Wallerstein, an 11th grade Jewish student, took comfort in knowing there are “actually people in Danvers who genuinely care about this topic.” She believes a large percentage of people spreading antisemitism either have an incorrect understanding of the Holocaust or are rooted in ignorance. “Symposiums like this could help lots of people gain a better understanding of major issues and could bring community members together in open discussions by connecting young and old,” she said.

Parent Mike Hass wants to help raise the bar on what is acceptable behavior. He also wants his daughter to learn more about the deeper societal issues that led to the Holocaust. “I want her to see and experience that speaking up and taking an active role in society is critical to shaping the world around her,” he said in an email.

Danvers Chief of Police James Lovell believes the program can serve as a framework for additional, admittedly difficult conversations that will help Danvers grow as a community. “More importantly, I hope to learn things I can do in my role as a public official and leader to ensure we properly investigate incidents of antisemitism and help create a culture where hate is not acceptable or tolerated,” he said in an email.

The program included the movie, “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” that uses rare footage to examine the Nazis’ rise and consolidation of power in Germany. Intended to provoke reflection and discussion about the role of ordinary people, institutions, and nations between 1918 and 1945, the film did just that.

Students and adults agreed that seeing video recordings from that era was much more impactful than reading about it in books. “Nothing is left to the imagination. This is a wake-up call,” said a student. “Seeing the sophistication of the Nazis’ approach, the normalization of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the hijacking of tradition – that really scared me,” added an adult.

For Selectman David Mills, Human Rights and Inclusion Committee co-founder, seeing the ease with which ordinary people were drawn into something so horrible disturbed him. “Do we all have that monster lurking just below the surface?” he asked.

Community member Carla King, who learned about the symposium through DanversCARES, has visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and attended lectures on the topic. She thought she knew more than many about the Holocaust. After the first session, she realized and appreciated there was much more for her to learn.

She was unnerved to watch the events that led to Hitler’s rise to power. “It was very powerful for me thinking of the current climate in the U.S. and that some of what we see is how it all started,” she said in an email. “Our children need to be educated about what the swastika means. I don’t believe they really understand, and if they did, I don’t think they would be doing what they are doing.”

Mary Wermers, assistant superintendent of Teaching and Learning at Danvers Public Schools, thinks outreach like this symposium can help Danvers. “We need passive bystanders to become upstanders in the community. It is time that we call out biased remarks and/or actions, try to explain why it is hurtful and not stand by and let it happen,” she said in an email.

Dave McKenna, who co-founded the Human Rights and Inclusion Committee in 1993 and is superintendent of Jewish Cemeteries of the North Shore, would go one step further. “We need to find a way to reach those who have no interest in learning about these issues and enlighten them as to the cause and effect of divisiveness and how it leads to hatred,” he said in an email. “We still have a long way to go.”

Teen Legacy Fellows preserve and perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust 

by Shelley A. Sackett

In April 2018, Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman visited Auschwitz with their dear friend David Schaecter, a 90-year-old survivor who spent over two years of his youth in this indescribable death camp. “While standing in front of David’s bunker, he turned to us and said, ‘Hear me, understand me, and let me tell my story,’” Kipnis said. By the end of their trip, she and Ruderman began to understand what their friend was asking.

“The imminent passing of survivors will occur during your and our children’s lifetimes,” Ruderman explained, noting the alarming results of a survey conducted by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that showed the Holocaust is fading from global memory. “While no one alone can change this disturbing trend, by the conclusion of our visit, Jody and I committed ourselves to do what we could to assure this does not happen.”

The two made a pledge while standing in the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp in Poland on Yom HaShoah in April 2018. “We promised each other that the words ‘never again’ would no longer be a call to prayer, but a call to action,” Kipnis said.

When they returned home, they conceived of Holocaust Legacy Fellows (HLF), whose mission is preserving and perpetuating the memory and lessons of the Holocaust for future generations by inviting teens throughout Greater Boston to meet survivors, learn about the Holocaust and make the trip to the places that forever changed Kipnis and Ruderman’s lives. Kipnis and Ruderman are its co-directors and funders.

By coincidence, Kipnis’s daughter, Gann Academy student Gillian Pergament, was on the 2018 Y2I trip and told Lappin Foundation Executive Director Deborah Coltin about the Holocaust travel program her mom and Ruderman were interested in starting. “I said I would love to know more and asked her to tell her mom,” Coltin said. She and Kipnis connected within days of her returning from the Y2I trip and, together with Ruderman, their ideas came to fruition.

“Debbie is an expert on teen travel and engagement. With her help, we pulled this together in just three months,” Kipnis said. She and Ruderman also enlisted the assistance of the Lappin Foundation (which has run the Youth to Israel program since 1971) to administer and implement HLF, and hired Coltin as education and program development consultant.

David Schaecter shows his tattooed number from Auschwitz.

Kipnis said HLF is in the process of becoming its own stand-alone non-profit organization.

Eligible teens for the 2018-2019 HLF pilot year needed to be juniors in high school; have participated in an organized Israel experience; be able to attend all pre- and post-trip meetings; agree to complete all homework assignments; and not have previously participated in an organized Holocaust educational trip to Poland.

As HLF Educator, Coltin, who has three decades experience teaching the Holocaust, created the curriculum, and will be one of the staff on the fully subsidized August 4-13, 2019 Poland and Berlin trip. She plans all meeting lessons, teaches the classes, and schedules survivors to speak to the teen Fellows.

“The curriculum reflects the human face of the Holocaust. The Fellows meet survivors in person, the last generation to do so. They bear witness to the Holocaust by hearing the survivors’ testimonies about their lives before, during and after the Holocaust, and what the enormous price in particular Jewish people paid for such hatred that went unchecked,” said Coltin.

The 16 inaugural Fellows represent Lynnfield, Middleton, Newburyport, Beverly, Arling­ton, Marblehead, Newton, Needham, Framingham and Swampscott. “I wanted the participants to be from ‘Greater Boston,’ not just one area. These kids have a responsibility to preserve and perpetuate the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. How else will we get the word out?” Kipnis said.

After attending an orientation and hearing survivor Schaecter speak last October, nominated teens wrote a paragraph describing why they wanted to be a Fellow. “In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, it is more important than ever that we continue discussing the Holocaust. I want to be part of the movement that ensures that nothing even close to it ever happens again,” wrote Dina Zeldin, a junior at Newton South High School.

“I hope to gain a new level of knowledge about the Holocaust and use that in my community, my country and someday even the world. I want to bring a sense of hope in such a dark trip,” Max Foltz, a junior at Newburyport High School, wrote.

For Coltin, the HLF trip will be her first time traveling to Poland and Berlin. While she admits that going to these sites so deeply connected to the Final Solution is “way out of my comfort zone,” she is thankful for the opportunity to open up and learn more.

“The Holocaust journey should be personal. We will be learning our history, our story. Knowing who we are as Jews puts us in the best possible position to support and promote the mission of Holocaust Legacy Fellows,” she said.

“Jody and Todd had a phenomenal idea and they followed through. Our community is truly blessed,” she added.

For more information, visit https://holocaustlegacyfellows.org/.