Reports of anti-Semitic incidents at Monument Middle School rattle Jewish students, families

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Police are investigating reports of anti-Semitic threats at Monument Valley Regional Middle School, according to police and school officials.

And while those officials stress that there is no credible threat to students' safety, the reports have rattled members of the Jewish community amid a nationwide increase of such incidents in schools and colleges. It is the second anti-Semitic incident at a Massachusetts middle school in recent weeks.

"We are very concerned by this and the unfortunate reminder that anti-Semitism and racism remain part of our community in South County and in our school," Monument Middle Principal Ben Doren wrote in an Oct. 31 letter to school families.

According to a parent, a student repeatedly had been telling Jewish students that he was going to "nuke the Jews," and that "I have a list and you're on it, and all the other Jewish kids are on it, too."

Doren, who did not provide these details, noted that "student use of anti-Semitic language and language referencing school shootings" had been brought to his attention earlier that week, and that police so far had no evidence of any credible threat to safety.

He told The Eagle that privacy laws prevent him from speaking to any disciplinary measures taken against the student, but he said he is taking the incident and larger issue "very seriously."

"We're working to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said, noting that the problem of religious or other bias is being increasingly worked into the curriculum, and that teachers are expanding study of the Holocaust, race and identity issues, disabilities and civil rights.

"It's so we're ready when an incident like this happens."

While Berkshire Hills Regional School District officials say that the event is a ripe opportunity for learning, and that a communitywide reckoning should ensue, local Jewish leaders who are supporting the targeted students and their families say there is much more to be done, and that the situation calls for a firmer, broader approach. They suggested that a larger community effort to fight anti-Semitism and any kind of racism or intolerance is overdue.

"Right now, the school system isn't hitting the mark," said Rabbi Neil Hirsch of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, a Great Barrington synagogue. "I would love to hear what the responsibility of the larger community is. If it is the broader community, it means we all could do better."

The reports come at a time when school shootings are frequent, and two mass synagogue shootings have Jewish communities on edge. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitic incidents, found a nearly 60 percent rise in its most recent report in 2017, the most significant increase since 1979, when the nonprofit began tracking data.

"The sharp rise was due in part to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for a second year in a row," according to the ADL's website.

Hirsch and Rabbi Jodie Gordon, his colleague at Hevreh, are meeting with school officials, parents of the targeted students and other local Jewish leaders to find a way forward.

Doren further said that the school is redoubling its efforts with the ADL's A World of Difference Institute program, which already was underway at the school.

ADL staff have worked with 20 sixth, seventh and eighth grade students to train them to do anti-bias work with the younger students, Doren said. He said another group of students will be trained in December.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one parent of a targeted student told The Eagle that students had reported the alleged "list" of Jewish students, as well as other comments and some other behavior, including Nazi salutes, the students found alarming.

The parent also said this isn't the first time in recent years that anti-Semitism has hit the school, and says there is the sense among parents that school officials are trying to minimize this incident.

"Kids have found swastikas in the bathroom and carved on the desks," the parent added, speaking to past incidents. "What I don't want is for this to be another one-off ... it just happens to be our Jewish kids this time."

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The parent said it should be addressed as a global problem, rather than by specific incident.

Gordon, who also is Hevreh's educator, said that over the past seven years that she has worked teaching eighth to 12th grade classes that she has heard students talk about anti-Semitic jokes and notes being passed around at the middle school, as well as posts on social media.

"It does feel connected to an ongoing culture problem," she said.

'That's a sign'

Local Jewish leaders and ADL staff say there is both an uptick in incidents and a "heightened awareness" of vulnerability.

"In the last year, we saw two people on two different sides of the country walk into two different synagogues and open fire," Hirsch said, referring to shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif. "We're living in a day when I can't even keep straight where the last mass shooting was."

It appears that there are more anti-Semitic rumblings in the schools.

"It's definitely been increasing, because we've been getting so many calls from schools to implement the [A World of Difference] program," said Shellie Burgman, spokeswoman for ADL New England. "There's such a big demand. We have a massive waiting list. That's a sign."

Robert Trestan, ADL New England's regional director, said the organization is "definitely seeing an increase across the board" in addition to this second "serious incident in two weeks" after a student at a charter school in Framingham reported a Snapchat group called "Kill the jews."

"It's a real concern to see students this young being engaged in this kind of targeting and anti-Semitism and it has a profound effect on not just the individual and families, but on the entire community," Trestan said.

He added that it is important that all students are included in conversations, and that school officials and staff should "not run from what happened."

"At Framingham, the discussion began as soon as [students] walked into their classrooms," he said of the immediate aftermath of the incident.

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon said he thinks that possibly less-dramatic incidents in local schools are more common than anyone is aware of because many go unreported, and that all of it is a reflection of the surrounding culture.

"When anyone is being treated with hate and hate speech, it compromises all of us and the whole community," he said.

While Trestan says incidents have to be addressed with education, he said it is important to not judge a school because of it.

"We should reserve our judgment for how they respond," he said. "Because in the real world, things happen all the time that are unpredictable."

Dara Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, said that such incidents should ignite a strong response.

"Anti-Semitism doesn't exist in a vacuum," she said. "The degree to which this event took place, it feels a little more targeted and scary for the families and the kids."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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