I hope your 2017 has gotten off to a good start – I know mine did, but this story began in darkness…
One of our temple moms, Jenna Gerstner was at Pavion Park in Mission Viejo playing with her young
children, when she spotted two swastikas at the park. She said she “left the park shaking and sick to her stomach.” But this mom felt she had to act – she was “tired of hate having the loudest voice. “
She had endured prejudice growing up in San Clemente, where one classmate “asked her if she ate babies,” and she also was told other kids didn’t want to be her friend because she was Jewish. Consequently, her family felt she would be safer if she didn’t wear a Jewish star because of the anti-Semitism in the community. Being Jewish, I had heard this concern before from other Jews, which left me with a sadness and smoldering outrage – how would you feel to be denied your identity because of fear of prejudice and ignorance? Incurring prejudice is not only an issue for Jews, but any minority. However, some minorities would be hard-pressed to hide their membership cards due to physical identifiers such as skin color.
But Jenna put her foot down and said enough is enough! Was she scared to act? Of course, with her background, who wouldn’t be? But she was courageous and did anyway. I believe that as a mom, her incentive to act was energized by looking into the eyes of her children – what could she do to make the world they live in better?
She reported the hate crime to the police, the Anti-Defamation League, social media and news organizations. The city agencies and police validated and acted on her report in a concerned and timely manner. The swastikas were immediately removed. Unfortunately, she learned that this was not the first time Neo-Nazi defacement had been found at this park recently.
She sought counsel from her rabbi wanting to know how she should talk to her children about racism. After meeting with Rabbi Kort, Monday night’s event, “A Place for Every Family,” was born – an event welcoming all members of Orange County’s diverse communities. One of the precious sights was to see the young children playing together. More playdates are being arranged in the future for the interfaith families with their children.
Not only did Jenna demonstrate her heroism, but as I looked around I saw a whole community of hundreds standing heart-to-heart, proud of our diversity, declaring that enough is enough. Our human community stood in solidarity with the Jewish people. It was a multi-faith demonstration of unity. Not necessarily religious, “Faith,” Rabbi K’vod Weider said, “Is the willingness to act on what we think is possible.” He continued, “What motivates all of us here today is a vision for the respect for the diversity of life.”
Many attending belonged to the Orange County Islamic Foundation and Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist Church with whom Temple Beth El has a long-time relationship. But there were other community members there from all parts of Orange County – just concerned citizens. I talked to a man of the Baha’i faith and a woman from Mission Viejo who had heard about the event and showed up to offer their support.
The event also had the backing of many government representatives. Attending was the Mayor of Mission Viejo, Wendy Bucknum; Mayor Pro Tem, Ed Sachs; Donovan Higbee from U.S. Rep. Mimi Walters; State Senator Patricia Bates; Council members; the Chief of Police; and The Commissioner for Parks and Recreations Services in Mission Viejo. We were protected by the Orange County Sheriff’s Departments finest presence. Other diverse organizations were represented including Rabbi Levi from the Anti-Defamation League with their campaign “No Place for Hate!” and Don Han from the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
With the fear and hate of “the other” in the news, offensive comments by our President-elect, hate crimes increasing, the recent biased United Nations resolution and anti-Semitism running rampant – particularly on college campuses – it was a beautiful demonstration showing that we are all connected in one human race.
Mr. Han from the Orange County Human Relations Commission stated that since the United States election, there have been 37 hate incidences and 7 hate crimes reported in Orange County.
If you’re uncertain of the difference between a hate incident and a hate crime, let’s clear up these definitions. According to the Orange County Human Relations Commission, a hate incident is behavior motivated by hate towards a person’s actual or perceived disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.1 A hate incident becomes a hate crime, when a crime is committed such as defacing property with racist, homophobic or religious graffiti or burning a cross on someone’s lawn. Another form of hate crime is a criminal threat of violence against an individual or group, an assault, attempted murder or murder.2
I know I’m a sap, but looking around at all of our supporters and listening to the speakers, I had tears in my eyes – not out of fear, but gratitude. As the sun began to set filling the sky with pinks and blue and light, I was grateful. Grateful to a young mom who cared enough to do something to make the world a better place. Grateful to our clergy and community leaders who listened and offered guidance. Grateful for law enforcement who protected us. Grateful for our multi-faith communities who see each other as more similar than different. Grateful for friends old and new. Grateful that I’m a Jew living in the United States, in 2017 instead of Germany in 1941-1945.
It had been a rainy day, but when it came time for the event, the rain had dried up and the light shone through the clouds. It was as if the heavens were paying tribute to a community filled with Love. This seed of Peace and inclusion was beginning to blossom in Mission Viejo.
This event was a ray of hope. Perhaps the best news from the election, regardless of what side of the aisle you are on, is that the dirt hidden in our cupboards has been revealed for all to see. It’s time for us to do some intense spring cleaning. Let’s get our scrub brushes out and make 2017 sparkle.
I invite you to Join Me on My Journey