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Peace

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

The year is rapidly coming to a close, and it is leaving us with impassioned thoughts. At this time, probably more than any other in the year, we pray for peace: “on earth peace, good will toward men.” Never in the history of the world were people more united than in this wish. And yet, we are so far from the reality.

Tessa Majors, only 18 years old and on the threshold of adult life, bright with promise, is stabbed to death in Morningside Park in Upper Manhattan. A Barnard College freshman from Virginia, an out-of-towner, was in the park after dark, although it was only 7 o’clock on a Wednesday evening, Dec. 11. Ostensibly the cause was a robbery gone bad. Her death is a personal tragedy for her family, her friends, the neighborhood, the Barnard and Columbia communities and all New York City. I know. I’m a Barnard alumna and my roots are in New York. The murder tugs at my heart. I lived on the Columbia campus for two years, only a short block from the park. One thing I understood: Don’t go into the park at night.

So I have lots of thoughts, lots of questions. Why was she there? Was she not told that simple fact? At the first assembly of my entering class, the president of the college cautioned us about safety in the neighborhood, warned us where to walk and how to be safe. That was a different time, I acknowledge, over a half-century ago, when the city was a more dangerous place. But dark places in any city can be dangerous anywhere in the world. The president was trying to teach us urban smarts. Are the new students still getting that important message on many college campuses? New Haven is not any different, neither is the University of Chicago and wherever there are universities adjacent to neighborhoods that are prone to crime.

“As of Dec.8, there had been 20 robberies inside Morningside Park or on its perimeter this year, compared to seven in the same period last year,” wrote The New York Times. The article continued, “Since June, five people reported being robbed on or near the staircase at 116th Street and Morningside Drive, near the spot where Ms. Majors was killed.” 

Why, then, was the park not better patrolled by the New York City Police Department? That’s what compiling those statistics is for, yes? To send help where help is most needed? This is an issue the NYPD will have to deal with in coming days.

The other metropolitan area tragedy at the top of the news at the moment is the slaughter of four innocent people in Jersey City Dec. 10 by, according to reports, a couple of heavily armed drifters. While those investigating the murders are not saying much while they work on the case, there seems little doubt that this was a hate crime directed specifically against both the police and one segment of the population: Jews. Why do people hate? Particularly why do they hate strangers, people they don’t even know? It’s a question as puzzling as why people would ever want to kill each other. For bigotry to be so strong as to result in violence is unfathomable. For that matter, why conclude that just because people are different, they should therefore be despised? In fact, they might be thought of as more interesting for their differences.

Which brings me back to my original thought. If everyone is praying for peace, why is there war? Why is there violence? Why is there bigotry? Why is peace so elusive? Is peace, real peace, impossible because of the makeup of humans? Will there always be a Hitler and a Stalin, a Napoleon, Vikings and an Attila the Hun?

Still, let us pray for peace, however hard to imagine. Let us keep this idea alive before us as a goal someday to be realized. Let us work to make our world less violent, less filled with hate, less bigoted. Maybe the operative word is “less?” That we surely can do.

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D) holds up signs kids made in support of peace. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

By Victoria Espinoza

The divisive nature of the 2016 presidential election is still affecting many Americans, and racist, anti-Semitic and other xenophobic actions have occurred in some communities.

Local legislators, police officers, school administrators and religious leaders gathered at the Tri Community Youth Association in Huntington Nov. 23 to preach inclusivity and acceptance after several hate-driven incidents were reported.

Two weeks ago, police said multiple swastikas were found spray painted on walls at Northport High School, and town officials said residents have reported hearing hateful language as well.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said parents and community members need to teach children the importance of accepting one another.

“One of these incidents is one too many,” he said during the Huntington event. “It’s our responsibility to speak out against it and educate our youth of the ramifications of such actions.”

A local rabbi holds up another sign encouraging unity. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
A local rabbi holds up another sign encouraging unity. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) echoed the sentiment.

“I want to take this opportunity to come together, to speak to our anxieties, our fears, our concerns that have been spurred by acts of predominantly ignorance,” Spencer said at the event. “We now have a new generation of young people that may not have experienced the Holocaust or the civil rights movement, and this call of unity is not speaking against acts for any particular group, but for all of us. Whether it’s with minorities, in the Jewish, Muslim, Christian community; this is condemning acts of hatred for all of us.”

Spencer said he has received multiple calls from friends and colleagues detailing stories of bullying and threatening acts in recent weeks.

“We are better than this. We can disagree with dignity and without being threatened or going as far as to commit a crime,” Spencer said.

The legislator outlined the many resources available to the public to battle hate crimes and encourage the observation of human rights, including education programs for students, and officers who are specifically trained to recognize hate crimes and counsel victims.

Rabbi Yaakov Saacks from the Chai Center in Dix Hills detailed programs offered to educators to help them teach about the Holocaust.

Saacks urged teachers to give extra attention to Holocaust studies and racism studies. The rabbi said he is involved with the Memorial Library, an organization that supports Holocaust education with satellite seminars, mini grants and more to help schools teach students about the Holocaust. He also offered to travel to schools himself to teach students.

“I believe a Holocaust symbol, while it’s true it’s hurtful to the Jews, the swastika … is hurtful to us all,” Saacks said. “Sixty million people died because of Hitler’s nonsense in World War II. Ten percent of those were of the Jewish faith. Fifty-four million non-Jewish people died. Over three percent of the world’s population were killed in WWII — 292,130 U.S. soldiers were killed in battle. The Iraq War was 5,000. The Civil War was 87,000. It’s not only a Jewish problem. The swastika hurt us all and hurts us all greatly.”

“We are better than this. We can disagree with dignity and without being threatened or going as far as to commit a crime.”
— William Spencer

Kenneth Bossert, superintendent of Elwood school district as well as the vice president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, agreed educators need more help teaching students about these sensitive issues.

“Schools are a reflection of what’s happening in society,” Bossert said. “What children bring with them to the classroom is not only what they learn from their teachers, but what they’re learning in their homes.”

Bossert said he has been an educator for more than 20 years, and this is the first presidential election he remembers that required teachers to talk about issues of race and division.

“Typically, after a presidential election, the results come in and teachers instruct about lessons on the Electoral College and the popular vote and how states break it down,” he said. “The lessons were very different this year. The lessons were about community and respecting others and making everyone feel comfortable and welcome in the hallways and the classrooms.”

Bossert said he wanted to correct one word used throughout the rally: tolerance.

“That’s not a word I use,” he said. “The word I use is acceptance. Tolerance implies that we’re going to tolerate someone who is somehow less than we are. Acceptance implies respect, community and love for one another.”