LACONIA — When Marsha Ostroff, a local attorney and past president at Temple B'Nai Israel in Laconia, was a first-grader in Richmond, Va., a student punched her for being a "Christ-killer." In seventh grade, a girl in her science lab group said it was "too bad Hitler didn't kill all the Jews."
Members of Temple B’Nai Israel, now in their 60s and 70s, also recall not being invited to birthday parties because of their faith; a fourth-grade classmate who didn’t like the word “rabbit” because it sounded too much like “rabbi"; a college freshman who was surprised to learn her Jewish roommate didn’t have horns under her hair; a fire that burned down a local business being referred to as “Jewish lightning.”
Anti-Semitism — through hurtful comments, acts of violence and vandalism — has been a constant throughout Jewish history, scholars say. It peaks in times of chaos, during economic and political upheavals, and when people look for a group to blame — usually a minority population.
"Anti-Semitism sometimes takes the form of silence or exclusion, and you may never know that you experienced it," said Stu Needleman of Moultonborough. "It can be a job you didn't get, a non-invitation to a party, a snub by a neighbor. Sometimes you will never know that it is there under the surface."
Today, anti-Jewish sentiments have been expressed on the far-left and far-right. Anti-Semitism continues as bullying, exclusion or ridicule, online and in schools. Although Jews have been successful and influential since America's founding, they remain a minority nationwide and in New Hampshire, and a target for those with bias.
That can change, and the solutions may benefit all ethnic and religious groups.
The foundation of any long-term strategy, experts say, is for communities to unite in condemnation of all forms of bigotry and hate.
“That starts with people talking to one another, and schools and community leaders being transparent about what is really happening, and leaders giving clear messages that express the values that people in the community adhere to,” said Robert Trestan, director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England.
Teenagers and students can become agents for change. Schools need to provide information about bigotry and intolerance, how to recognize it, and teach young people to stand up for themselves, for friends and people they don’t know, Trestan said. Students can mentor other students.
“We want young people to be confident and compassionate and support one another,” Trestan said. “These are important skills for life. We need young people to take a role in saying this kind of hatred doesn’t define us. It’s not consistent with our values or our community’s values, and we’re not going to stand for it.”
The ADL’s anti-bias Peer Training Program, offered at 120 New England schools, includes 18 hours of workshops, trains seventh through 12th graders in “safe and practical prevention and response strategies, and how to become allies to targeted peers.”
The first school in New Hampshire to provide it will be Rivendell Academy in Orford, which begins training some high schoolers this month.
Anti-bullying programs have made inroads in New Hampshire schools since bullying became a national concern.
The governor’s Task Force on School Safety recommends Choose Love, an online curriculum focused on social and emotional learning and building a culture of cooperation and respect. It was inspired by a Sandy Hook school shooting parent, Scarlett Lewis, who lost her son, Jesse, who wrote that message on their family's chalkboard before he died.
The program covers emotional regulation, looking at things from others’ perspectives, learning to speak empathetically and taking control of one’s thoughts and reactions.
The goal is to foster better interaction with all people and establish a culture of kindness, said Holly Vieten, a guidance counselor at Interlakes High School.
“We’re trying to give everyone a skill set and a way to approach conflict in a way that’s respectful for themselves and others,” Vieten said.
Another pillar in the fortress against bias and hate is Holocaust education — something that is mandatory in 12 states.
At a Jewish Federation of New Hampshire meeting last month, Gov. Chris Sununu stressed the need for Holocaust education in New Hampshire.
The Holocaust "was an attempt to eradicate an entire population off the planet — just the horror of that. It's really important that kids understand that the Holocaust happened, and what it was," said Drew Cline, chairman of the New Hampshire State Board of Education, which drafts standards that include curriculum recommendations.
Extensive resources for teachers are available online, including sections from “Echoes and Reflections” a joint project of Steven Speilberg’s SHOA Foundation, the ADL and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, for creating one-day lessons, week-long units, or full semester courses on Holocaust history.
For reading, Michele Caccavaro, an English teacher at Lebanon High School who teaches a course on Holocaust literature, suggests, “Night” by Elie Weisel, “Roses in a Forbidden Garden” by Elise Garibaldi and “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness,” by Simon Wiesenthal.
Keene State College is the first college nationwide to offer an undergraduate major in Holocaust and genocide studies. It’s also home to the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, a public outreach and resource center that offers community programming and training for educators.
Tom White, a history teacher and the center’s coordinator of educational outreach, gives lectures, programs with guest speakers, and offers curriculum guidance to teachers.
“We know about (the Holocaust), but our knowledge is surface, and we jump to false conclusions,” White said.
At Kennett High School in Conway, White will deliver a 90-minute program in February on how the Nazis established the dictatorship and Hitler came to power — his first educational venture into the North Country.
“What human beings do is vilify other people by saying their own group is superior,” he said. “You’re talking about bullying” — a topic that resonates with students even if they aren’t victims. “It’s posing questions about human identity and how you see the other.”
Sometimes White’s role is to combat misinformation that has been widely accepted. For instance: There were roughly 42,500 locations of Nazi persecution of Jews during World War II, including ghettos, death camps and work camps in North Africa, Europe and the Channel Islands between Britain and France. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, six million Jews died in the Holocaust, including approximately 1 million in camps in Auschwitz, Poland and roughly 925,000 in Treblinka 2.
A prevailing myth surrounding Adolf Hitler’s ascent and the proliferation of Nazism, White said, is “the misconcept of a dictator with mental illness rising up. There were tens of thousands doing difficult work that’s the difficult thing to do, but it was a moral universe they were engaged in.”
Is it reasonable to compare Nazi Germany to currents in the present-day U.S.?
“You have to be extremely careful,” White said. “You can’t ignore when human behavior is leaning in a certain direction.”
Students today know the words “Hitler” and “Nazi” because they’re part of our cultural lexicon, he said. But few realize Hitler and an entourage of Nazi leaders came to the U.S. to study our segregation and race laws, concentrating their investigation in the South. They found our laws too radical to imitate, White said.
For more information about Holocaust and genocide education, go to keene.edu.cchgs.
The Jewish Federation of New Hampshire is offering programming, including ADL's "Words to Action: Empowering Jewish Students to Address Bias on Campus," Sunday, Nov. 17, at 3 p.m. in Bedford, and ADL's Hate Crimes Training on Feb. 9, 2020. Contact email@example.com.
For information on the ADL’s peer training program, go to newengland.adl.org