Holocaust Remembrance Day event in Belchertown draws 150, calls for education in wake of antisemitic incidents at middle school

By MADDIE FABIAN

For the Gazette

Published: 04-19-2023 2:17 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Raised by two Holocaust refugees, both of whom lost grandparents, aunts, uncles and relatives to concentration camps, Deborah Roth-Howe grew up commemorating Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. But this year, recent antisemitic incidents at the town’s middle school shone extra light on the day’s significance.

“There’s a really important imperative in my family about not being a bystander and not being silent ... that’s why I’m here,” said Roth-Howe, adding that she believes that school administrators should turn recent events into a teaching opportunity for students.

Roth-Howe was one of about 150 community members gathered Tuesday afternoon on the Belchertown Common to remember the Holocaust and stand up to antisemitism in the community.

“We’re gathering both in solemn observation of Yom HaShoah and of the atrocities, but also recognizing that antisemitism, unfortunately, is here,” said state Rep. Aaron Saunders, D-Belchertown. “This is the beginning of our response to the very troubling incidents at the middle school.”

On April 3, an email sent to parents announced that school officials at Jabish Brook Middle School had opened an investigation into recent antisemitic actions by a reportedly large number of students. A separate email from a parent said the actions included performing the Nazi salute and making mocking references to gas chambers and the Holocaust.

Saunders, alongside Select Board Chair Jim Berry and civic and faith leaders across the community, organized Tuesday’s event as an occasion for community members to remember the past in the context of antisemitism today.

“Seeing people come together today, it’s very heartening and grounding,” said Madeleine Charney, a member of the Jewish Community of Amherst. “It’s a very disturbing thing that young people are acting so heartlessly, and I want to be another body in this crowd to expand the response.”

The event included speakers across faiths and called on the community to act against antisemitism in schools and beyond.

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“The safety of our children is paramount,” said Nora Gorenstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. “And the freedom to be who you are … is really important, particularly for youth, particularly as they’re growing and learning and developing. The example we, as adults, set for our children, there’s no greater responsibility.”

Speakers delved into themes of heroism, education and joining together across faiths and backgrounds to stand up against hatred and bigotry.

“There is a struggle taking place within our society, of which the incidents in our schools are perhaps the most easily recognizable symptom, which is why we must ask for courage not just from our children, but from ourselves,” said Rabbi Benjamin Weiner of the Jewish Community of Amherst.

The incidents in Belchertown come amid reports of increasing antisemitism across Massachusetts. According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, Massachusetts ranked fifth among the states in the number of antisemitic incidents last year, with the total increasing from previous years.

The spike in antisemitism has led to efforts to address the issue in education, such as a recent $25 million ad campaign by the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The foundation also has partnered with other organizations including the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts to support the campaign.

Henia Lewin, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor, also spoke at the event. She said she feels that it is her obligation to tell her story for as long as she can and spoke to the importance of education in combating hatred.

“The people I am most angry with are the bystanders. They look the other way and they let the evil happen. It is they who could have stopped it,” Lewin said. “It is important that we not be followers, and it starts with education.”

Deacon John Murray of St. Francis of Assisi Parish expressed a need to stand up across faiths, saying, “We are here for each other. We have to be loving, we have to be forgiving, and we need to stand up to hate … We learn from each other, and to make a better society, we must stand up.”

The event concluded with a traditional Jewish prayer remembering the dead, called a Yizkor prayer.

The prayer was composed by the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and recognizes the memory of the “righteous Gentiles,” non-Jewish people who risked their lives to aid Jewish people during the Holocaust.

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