Since 2005, we have included in the Ledger’s “Year in Review” issue a list of “Movers & Shakers” – Connecticut residents who had made an outstanding contribution to life in Connecticut’s Jewish communities over the course of the year.
This year, however, we decided to try something new: Instead of selecting a long list of Movers & Shakers – and, to be sure, there are many within our community who continue to make a difference each and every day – we settled on a single Person of the Year – an exceptional person or (as is the case here) group of persons who not only made an outstanding contribution to life in Connecticut’s Jewish communities over the course of the past year, but who in a very definitive way have changed the conversation.
We believe we found just that in a group of young people who, when targeted by a spate of antisemitic attacks, stood up, spoke out and resolved to play a leading role in confronting an issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in our schools.
We are proud to present our very first Person of the Year!
The Courageous – and Outspoken – Students of Amity Regional High School
It was an extraordinary moment.
On Monday evening, Nov. 12, more than 50 students from Amity Regional High School – and their supporters – filed into a cramped room at Woodbridge Town Hall to address members of the town’s Board of Education.
The students’ goal: to wake up and shake up the town’s leadership, prodding them to take decisive action to extinguish the increasing incidents of antisemitism at their school.
It was standing room only as student after student approached the podium and recounted his or her personal experience. The students cited incidents of verbal abuse in the school’s hallways and parking lot, and many held up cellphones to show photographs of a swastika carved on a bathroom stall door which had been there for a long time.
Each student ended their statement with what became the group’s mantra: “I do not feel safe here.”
“One by one, BBYO teens, Amity teens and community members addressed the BOE committee asking for change, teens pleading with them for help,” said Josh Cohen, BBYO area director of Community Impact, noting that many of those who spoke were members of the Woodbridge chapter of BBYO, the pluralistic Jewish teen movement.
“They said, ‘I go to school here and I am afraid for my safety because I’m Jewish,’ or, ‘I’m gay’ or ‘I’m friends with Jewish kids,’ or ‘I’m an exchange student from another country and have been called a terrorist.’”
The story of antisemitic rhetoric and graffiti at the Woodbridge school and the students’ call to action quickly spread throughout the state and even across the country and in Israel. Images of tearful students addressing tearful members of the town’s Board of Education peppered social media sites, alongside reports from what proved to be an emotional and cathartic public forum on an alarming climate of intolerance at the school.
State Senator Gayle Slossberg (D-Milford), the parent of an Amity graduate was among the many parents, Jewish leaders and community members at the meeting. She told the Ledgerthat she had received several calls from constituents requesting her presence at the meeting.
“Historically, there’s been a sense of a challenging climate at Amity, and with issues of bias,” Slossberg said. “Whether it’s more or less than any other school, it is hard to tell but, clearly, some things had gotten to a level that demanded action and attention.”
Judy Alperin, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, received a call from a community member early Monday morning, alerting her to the BOE meeting. She attended the evening meeting to support the students.
“I was so moved by and proud of all of the young people, all the students who came to stand up and speak out,” Slossberg says. “They were articulate, clear, and respectful – but they were clearly hurting, and each one ended their statement by saying that they didn’t feel safe at school. It was incredibly powerful that students who are not Jewish were also there to support their Jewish friends and their school.”
In response to the reports voiced at the meeting, Amity Principal Anna Mahon shared the school’s strategy with the Amity community via email: “The short-term plan – to be addressed throughout the school year – will be to work closely with local clergy, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and other community organizations to specifically address antisemitic and other intolerant behavior. We are also training staff in restorative practices at all three schools.”
Students arrived at school on Tuesday to find police officers in the school parking lot and Amity staff in the hallways during transition times. For the rest of the week, students were invited to meetings and counseling sessions with members of the administration and ADL Connecticut Regional Office to discuss their encounters with intolerance and to brainstorm possible solutions.
In the days following the meeting, students like sophomore and BBYO member Samantha Hass, who had told the BOE that “the issues at Amity have completely interrupted my ability to focus on anything in class,” found it difficult to be in the school.
“While the tension has died down at least a little bit, on Monday, I was incredibly scared to go to class,” she said. “On Tuesday, I was unable to attend class at all due to the tension and fear that was unmistakable in the hallways.”
Long-term, Mahon writes, the school and Board of Education will draft a two- to five-year action plan, “so as to ensure that these issues will continue to be an integral part of the curriculum at Amity Regional High School.”
Andy Friedland, associate director of the ADL Connecticut Regional Office, notes that antisemitic incidents at the K-12th grade level are currently up 97 percent. He says that the measure of a community is not in an antisemitic incident, but in the response.
“When a community shines a light on the problem and says with a clear and unified voice that this incident is not acceptable and that steps will be taken to prevent similar future incidents, that says a lot more about the community than the fact that an incident like this occurred,” he says. “That’s why we are working in partnership with administrators, teachers, students, and other groups in the area to make sure that all students feel heard, included, and safe.”
Friedland says that ADL will tailor an educational program for the school.
In recent years, however, there have been several disturbing incidents of antisemitism in various Connecticut towns – most notably, in the town of Ridgefield, where, over the past two years, antisemitic graffiti has repeatedly surfaced at a local park and other venues. In addition, just last week a swastika was found painted on the sidewalk outside the Ferguson Library in Stamford, a day before a rabbi was scheduled to give a talk.
In addition, several recent incidents at William Hall High School in West Hartford prompted Hall Principal Dan Zittoun to send a letter to students, saying, in part, “I have already begun discussions with some students to take steps to make all students feel safe at school. In addition, we have also been in contact with various outside groups to discuss our current educational programming and explore new ones.”
Amity High students are counting on school administrators to combat the problem. But they have also taken it upon themselves to lead the way, launching social media campaigns – #StrongerThanHate and #ItEndsHere – and rallying at the school’s Diversity in Action club and Student Climate Committee.
“I was one of the many who felt fear walking the halls, not proud to be Jewish. However, I am no longer afraid and instead want to help those who haven’t yet found their own voice and help spread kindness,” says Amity senior and BBYO member Ally Grubman, who attended the BOE meeting and participated in subsequent school-wide conversations with administration and guidance counselors, ADL representatives, and the Student Climate Committee.
Slossberg lauds the students for leading the way toward a solution, with the help of the community.
“What is most significant is that the students have been included in the process and I believe that that’s what will continue to go on,” Slossberg says. “Addressing school-climate issues is a complicated and difficult matter. It seems that the school, administration and Board of Education understand that, and I believe they’re on the right path to working together to address it.”
Hass says school administrators have been very clear about their intention to work with students on a solution, but she too believes that the most effective solution would be a student-led program.
“As an active BBYO member, I know that many of us are willing to write and lead a program with the school population,” she says. “I think that we as students are the ones who are most invested in solving the problem and are the most desperate for change, and the best solution would be to have us, the affected students, lead an open discussion on discrimination and hate.”
CAP: Amity High School students and Jewish community leaders packed the house at a recent Woodbridge Board of Education meeting.