Antisemitic graffiti, including swastikas and other hate speech, found in Edgemont Park
Antisemitic graffiti, including swastikas and other hate speech, appeared in the Edgemont Memorial Park playground last weekend. The markings, made in purple and black marker, are part of an undeniable rise of antisemitism in the United States that is rooted in white supremacist ideology, local rabbis said Tuesday.
The graffiti included seven different phrases written around the playground, along with multiple swastikas, Lt. Terence Turner, a spokesman for the Montclair Police Department, said Tuesday. Phrases included “Jew whore” written on the park gate and “penis Nazi” on a park slide.
Montclair police received a report of the graffiti on Saturday and an officer, along with the Department of Public Works, were able to remove all the markings, Turner said.
“Suspected or confirmed bias incidents are serious and are fully investigated,” Turner said. “This was the only incident of antisemitic graffiti that we have had recently.”
Detective Paul Rusniak, who is specially trained in bias crimes and hate crimes, is investigating the incident, working with the Bias Crimes Unit at the Division of Criminal Justice, the New Jersey State Police, and the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, Turner said. Anyone with information can contact Rusiniak at (973) 509-4776.
“Part of the challenge that the Jewish community is going through right now is that they're getting hit by all sides,” Temple Ner Tamid Rabbi Marc Katz said Tuesday. “Sometimes you've got issues that are local, but feel like they're okay nationally, and sometimes you have issues that are challenging nationally, but you feel like you're in a bubble. That's not the way this is.”
According to an April report by the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents “reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism.” That’s the highest number of incidents recorded since the league began tracking in 1979, and “an average of more than seven incidents per day and a 34 percent increase year over year,” the report says.
Lt. Terence Turner, who serves as a spokesman for the Montclair Police Department, has not yet responded to a voicemail and email sent Tuesday morning with questions about the graffiti.
On a national level, rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, is praising Adolf Hitler, Twitter is allowing more hate speech under its new leadership and former president Donald J. Trump is dining with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist and Holocaust denier, Katz said.
“It feels like nationally, things are scary,” Katz said. “But then, you've got these local incidences.”
In October, a Montclair parent spoke up about her daughter’s experience with antisemitism at Buzz Aldrin Middle School. Last school year, Michele Silver’s daughter was called a “Jewish ____” by a classmate, who used a vulgar slur referring to female genitalia. Then in October, two students held up their arms in a Nazi salute in the direction of Silver’s daughter, Silver said.
And the experiences of Silver’s daughter are not the first instances of antisemitism in the Montclair.
Montclair civil rights leader James Harris apologized in 2019 following criticism of comments viewed by community leaders to be antisemitic at a Fourth Ward meeting. Harris, at that time the chair of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators and the education chair of the Montclair NAACP, referred to the “gutting” of public schools in Lakewood and the diverting of education funding to yeshivas. Harris went on to remark about how people believed to be Hasidic Jews were going around neighborhoods in Jersey City buying property in order to “replace” residents.
During the 2019-2020 school year, swastikas were found at the high school on three separate occasions. In May 2021, an email from Montclair High School honoring American-born Israeli ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane offended community members who described Kahane as a “racist, violent terrorist.”
And those are only some of the instances that Katz has heard about from congregants, he said.
“It feels like the general ethos of the United States is spilling into the towns and schools that our kids are growing up in,” Katz said. “It’s scary.”
During Shomrei Emunah Rabbi Julie Roth’s first three months at the synagogue — she joined in August — there were the antisemitic incidents in the Montclair school district, a threat of violence against all synagogues in New Jersey, and now the graffiti in Edgemont Park, the same place where Roth and her congregation gathered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
“We are about to celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday of light that celebrates religious freedom at one of the darkest times of the year,” Roth said. Hanukkah begins Dec. 18.
“My message to everyone in our community is we need to be the light — we need to stand up to antisemitism and all forms of hate wherever we see it,” Roth said. “The response to swastikas on our playgrounds should be an uproar of ‘not in our town,’ from every segment of our community, not just from the rabbis and synagogues.”
Roth encouraged people to educate themselves about antisemitism using resources from the Anti-Defamation League, available at adl.org. She also said she would be happy to meet and speak with interested community members.
“This is weighing on our hearts and minds and now is the time to educate ourselves to recognize antisemitism and condemn it lest people think antisemitism or any form of hate is acceptable in Montclair or anywhere in our country,” Roth said.
Seeing swastikas and antisemitic graffiti is always disturbing, but especially so when it is in a playground, Bnai Keshet Rabbi Elliott Tepperman said Tuesday.
“It is particularly distressing because we don't know if this is the act of an ignorant kid or a group more intentionally targeting this location,” Tepperman said.
The most important thing right now is for Montclair to work as a community “to address the normalization of white supremacist ideologies,” he said.
“Antisemitism and racism are both cornerstones of white supremacy,” Tepperman said. “The increase of antisemitic and racist tropes, even in mainstream politics, is a threat not only to Jews and people of color but to all vulnerable groups and to democracy itself.”
White supremacy targets any number of groups that are deemed dangerous, Katz said.
“To pull one group out specifically, or to exclude one group, when you talk about those who are victimized by white supremacy, doesn't doesn't do justice to the way that one needs to attack that ideology,” Katz said.
The local rabbis remain in close communication about instances of antisemitism in the community, Katz said. They discuss what they hear from congregants, from school district leadership and what they each are seeing in Montclair.
But support for Montclair’s Jewish residents extends beyond synagogue walls, Katz said. And that’s something he reminds congregants when they voice concern about antisemitism in town and in the country.
“I talk about the relationships that we have with local officials and how the towns do take antisemitism seriously when it happens,” Katz said. “Unfortunately we live in a society where we have to play whack-a-mole with it. But the towns are doing their best and they've got people who care and they're beginning to take systematic steps to hopefully deal with the problem.”
Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, whose ward includes the park, said Monday she plans to take action.
“In a town that cares about diversity and is so supportive to all, it deeply saddens me when something like this happens,” Schlager said. “Unfortunately, this reminds us that Montclair is not immune to acts of hate.”
And this isn’t the first instance of vandalism in the park, she said.
“Although I don’t think we necessarily want cameras in the park, I will ask our Acting Town Manager, Mr. Scantlebury, if the police can patrol and drive around the perimeter of the park in the evening on a more regular basis,” Schlager said.
Mayor Sean Spiller said Tuesday he was “deeply disturbed” by the graffiti and that he takes the threats “extremely seriously.”
“The rise in antisemitism is part of an alarming national trend,” Spiller said. “Those who espouse this violent ideology seek to perpetuate hate and instill fear. Let me be clear — Montclair will not be intimidated.”
The Township has increased police patrols at local synagogues, both by patrol cars and officers on foot, Spiller said.
“I will continue to make all resources available to protect our community,” Spiller said. “I am committed to standing shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish Community and all Montclair residents in defense of our shared values.”
Katz also pointed to efforts by the Montclair school district, such as Buzz Aldrin Middle School adopting the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate, anti-bias, anti-bullying program, an initiative intended to help Buzz Aldrin students and staff to create a school-run No Place for Hate Committee. The committee will organize three anti-bias events during the school year, “each one entailing active participation from all Buzz Aldrin students,” a press release from the district said.
“The best thing that we can do is just keep creating bonds with other groups, so that we have allies and we can show up for them when they need us,” Katz said. “Unfortunately, it feels like it is our turn right now. But it doesn't mean that it's not going to be someone else's turn very soon.”
The school district was also recently honored for its five-year partnership with Kean University’s Holocaust Resource Center, with a feature in a video celebrating the Center and Kean’s Holocaust Research Foundation’s 40th anniversary.
Through the partnership, hundreds of Montclair High School students have participated in and received college credits for taking a Holocaust, Genocide and Modern Humanity class, according to a district press release. The course is a semester-long elective offered through the social studies department with units focused on, among other topics, identity and society, genocide in historical context and the Holocaust.