PHOTO GALLERY | "Anti-Semitism and Islomophobia: Exploring the Roots of Prejudice" Panel

PITTSFIELD — The statistics are alarming, given the astonished reaction of the crowd gathered at the Berkshire Museum on Sunday afternoon.

Although not yet official, the number of reported hate crimes in Western Massachusetts is up 75 percent since 2012, according to Deepika Shukla, an assistant U.S. Attorney based in Springfield.

Shukla elicited more moans and groans when she told the audience that an FBI investigator expects the situation to worsen by the end of this year.

"He predicts for 2016-2017, the statistics will double from 2015 ... due to the election cycle," she said referring to last year' presidential campaign.

The apparent escalation in racial, ethnic, religious, gender and sexual orientation bias didn't deter Shukla and three Pittsfield community leaders from offering hope and solutions to counter those hateful acts.

The four were members of a panel discussion titled "Anti-Semitism and Islomophobia: Exploring the Roots of Prejudice," sponsored by the Pittsfield Human Rights Commission and moderated by commission member Drew Herzig.

Joining Shukla on the museum's theater stage was Rabbi David Weiner of the Congregation Knesset Israel, Rev. Joel Huntington, pastor at South Congregational Church, and Rabeh Elleithy from the United American Muslim Association.

The four panelists called upon Berkshirites to be more vocal and take action against hate crimes and speech and emphasized that outward appearances shouldn't divide a community.

"Reach out and try to bridge among groups in the community. We need to break the barrier of being different," Elleithy said.

"If we want love and compassion to rule the day, why not now," added Weiner.

Despite the Trump administration wanting to build a wall on the Mexican border, limiting travel privileges for people entering the U.S. from a half-dozen Muslin majority countries and delaying further Syrian refugee resettlement in Pittsfield and elsewhere in the country, federal law enforcement remains committed to dealing with hate crimes.

"In Massachusetts, we take hate crimes very seriously and we want to hear of anything that's disturbing," Shukla said.

She encouraged people to call 413-732-0159 to report a hate crime or hate speech that could really be a hate crime.

"Don't make the distinction, that's our job," noted the federal prosecutor.

Huntington called on all people of varying faiths, ethnic backgrounds and gender to work things out for a better community.

"We need to broaden and widen our experiences, that's what interfaith is all about," he said.

During the question and answer period, a couple of audience members urged the panel to work with area school districts to teach the youngest children the need for respect for everyone.

The panel agreed and cited how some individual schools and teachers do educate the youngsters on the various cultures and religions represented in the community. However, moderator Drew Herzig said there's no county-wide organization that can reach all Berkshire school districts at once to introduce diversity programming.

While the audience was appreciative of the panel discussion, one questioner felt the forum was "preaching to the wrong choir."

Herzig found nothing wrong with reinforcement.

"I'm a great believer in preaching to the choir," he said.

Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.