On a chilly night last week, a small but quietly spirited group of parents, students and other community members gathered at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School for an anti-hate forum hosted by state Sen. Jeffrey Klein.
Joining him were some other leaders like Councilman Andrew Cohen as well as members of the Fieldston Property Owners Association.
The little-noticed event came in the wake of what police are calling a hate crime when, on the morning of Sept. 10, a Fieldston homeowner, whose daughter works as an assistant state attorney general, stepped out of his West 246th Street home to pick up the Sunday paper only to discover someone had spray-painted the word “Jew” on his front door.
“What we need to do is start a dialogue among young people,” Klein said at the outset. “We shouldn’t fight diversity. We need to celebrate it.”
What was less clear, however, was why it seemed this meeting was thrown together almost at the last minute by Klein’s office — so short, in fact, that Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz couldn’t make it because of a prior commitment, and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel had to back out at the last second.
Klein said he organized the event at the urging of Fieldston community president Jeff Mueller, who contacted not just the senator, but also Cohen, Engel and Dinowitz.
Yet, even Mueller couldn’t attend because of a family emergency.
Many who were asked to attend seemed unable to share when exactly they were invited to the forum, which wasn’t even shared with The Riverdale Press until the morning of the event.
That invitation came after Klein’s office was asked to comment on a Politico story that identified the senator as receiving more earmarks than any other state legislative official — receiving more than five times what Democrats in the senate were able to scrounge, combined.
Engel’s public affairs director Bryant Daniels attended in his stead, yet the congressman couldn’t recall specifically when he first learned of Klein’s forum.
“I don’t think everything was finalized until over the weekend,” Engel said. “The event was put together by Sen. Klein’s office, so we can’t speak for when or how they organized it.”
But no one should be discouraged by the sparse turnout either.
“It’s very hard to get the word out on things like that,” Engel said. “But I think it’s better to have had the forum than to have not had it at all. It’s not one-and-done. This is only a start, and whether a thousand people attend or 50, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re not sweeping it under the rug.”
Using surveillance cameras and other investigative tools, police arrested a teenager, Jared Lewis, on Sept. 13. He was charged as an adult with committing a hate crime.
Seeing that such vandalism came from someone so young prompted Klein to act, he said.
“Riverdale has a solid Jewish community, so I thought it was important, especially given the most recent incident … to engage young people,” Klein added. “A lot of these kids don’t even know what a swastika is and what it means to someone who was a Holocaust survivor or a Jew or a relative of Holocaust survivors like myself.”
Klein pointed to his own efforts — for example, allocating $856,000 in state funding toward Project Boost, an academic and cultural enrichment program for late elementary, middle and high school students from disadvantaged neighborhoods — to increase intercultural awareness among young people in the northwest Bronx. But Klein also called for grassroots participation by those in the community, from teachers to parents and their children, and said he intends to start a program that would expand beyond Fieldston into all of the area schools, focusing on diversity and cross-cultural understanding through food, music and trips.
“I think the idea of having kids in school visit a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic church to learn about religion is very helpful because they may not be learning this at home,” Klein said. “Or maybe these negative attitudes are coming from home.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale offered optimism. “From this incident, there can come light. The key is that you stand up when there’s racism in the community.”
But Weiss noted this isn’t the first time something like what happened to the Fieldston home has plagued the community. Indeed, Klein pointed to 2009 when the FBI uncovered a bomb plot targeting two Riverdale synagogues — the Riverdale Temple and the Riverdale Jewish Center.
50th Precinct deputy inspector Terence O’Toole also attended the meeting, warning the gathering “we can’t get caught up in the mob mentality.”
O’Toole later told The Press Fieldston residents need not be concerned about a potential rise in hate crimes, noting two others were reported at the beginning of the year, “but nothing exceptional.”
“They’re all rather juvenile,” he said. “There’s nothing terrible about it. It’s terrible in the way they’ve been doing it, but a drunk 16-year-old writing ‘Jew’ on a door and his two friends saying, ‘What’re you doing that for?’ — it’s a hate crime, but we don’t think he was really biased. But we can’t judge that.
CORRECTION: The home that was vandalized in Fieldston in September was located on West 246th Street. A story in the Oct. 26 edition stated an incorrect address.