Council Plans Education, Awareness In Response To Swastika Incident
Kinnelon council members listen as residents speak out
Kinnelon Mayor Robert Collins said at Thursday's Borough Council meeting that the investigation into the spray painting of a swastika on a resident's property is still ongoing.
The mayor said he has a meeting scheduled with Rabbi Ettinger to devise a plan.
"We’re going to see what we can do to get the information out and involve the community in understanding that it’s unacceptable," Collins said.
"It’s important that this be a community-wide effort and a vehicle to inform people and to ensure that, however minor or major this may be perceived, it’s something that should not ever be tolerated, particularly for our Jewish residents and members of our community.
"This is Kinnelon. We’re not going to tolerate it."
Councilman Gary Moleta said the mayor asked him to meet with KAMELOT, Kinnelon's municipal alliance, to address the situation. Moleta said they are planning a student assembly to educate children about different religions and ethnicity. He said it will be held later this year or possibly next year.
Several members of the public came up to speak during the open portion of the meeting. Howard Brechner, an attorney, has family members who survived the Holocaust, and said the incident hit home.
"The swastika and spray paint incident has affected a lot of us in an incredibly compelling way," Brechner said. "Personally, my sister-in-law’s mother is a survivor from Auschwitz. Her father is a survivor from the Polish underground, so this hits home."
He urged the council to respond swiftly and decisively.
"I am thinking, how are we going to be able to respond swiftly and decisively? If we don’t, and something happens and somebody gets hurt, the borough is exposed to liability," Brechner said.
"I’m anxious to see, as the investigation progresses and you get back to us with what your action plan is, that we can be encouraged and that I can go home tonight and look at my wife and my daughters and know they are going to be safe."
Brechner said he views the incident as more than a prank.
"I view this as somewhere on a continuum between criminal conduct, terroristic threat, hate crime, some combination … and that’s a scary place for the little Borough of Kinnelon," Brechner said.
Ronete Koster, a resident of Fayson Lakes, said it is a crime of society.
"It is not necessarily a Jewish crime," she said. "It is a crime of society, a crime of genocide. It is not specifically a Jewish issue. It is an issue that has happened to every race throughout history for hundreds and hundreds of years.
"We need, as a community, to respond as quickly as possible so that we can feel safe and we can show other communities that we will not tolerate these crimes," said Koster.
Another resident, Avery Hart, spoke of incidents that took place when she first moved to Kinnelon.
"My son was in seventh grade, and there was a kid that made a fist," she said. "He opened up that fist to [my son] and two other Jewish kids, and there was a swastika on that hand. It was like 'welcome to Kinnelon.'”
Hart said she is comforted by the council's stand on the issue, but wants them to bring in more than one program.
"KAMELOT can be an instrument that can help break these vestiges of fear and ignorance down, but I think we can really step it up," Hart said. "I think we have to communicate to the Board of Education as to the severity of these issues and bring more than one program in."
Resident Lila Helu brought up a different perspective.
"We always put it on the children, but we’ve got to look at the adults," she said. "This is where they learn."
Edward Weisselberg, a longtime resident, called the graffiti incident a "mini-act of terrorism."
"The children who did this, and they have been identified, need to be punished in some kind of way, not to hurt them, but to educate them so that they have an understanding and become sensitive to what other people are feeling," he said.
Weisselberg is the founding president of the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon and a state chairman for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization created to fight anti-semitism. He recommended "A World of Difference" as an effective program for teaching sensitivity to schools and workforces. The council said they would look into it.
Moleta said the council is working strongly on education and law enforcement.
"This council is committed on the law enforcement end," he said. "Obviously the investigation has to be carried out. We are doing the best we can, I can assure you of that."
Collins said the council will remain proactive
"I was very strong when I set forth that this is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable anywhere, but it’s unacceptable in Kinnelon, and this council is not gonna tolerate it," he said.
"We take it as a very serious issue and just want to give you some reassurance. We’re gonna remain proactive once we have a meeting with Rabbi Ettinger in the near term, so we’re not going to just quietly sit back. We’ve already put something in place to address the issue in a very timely manner."