Islanders rally for inclusion, take steps toward education and healing, after recent anti-Semitic events

March 12, 2019 | by Erin Sirianni

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On Sunday, March 10th, over 50 community members gathered in Mercerdale Park for a Rally for Inclusion, an event organized in response to recent expressions of anti-Semitism on Mercer Island.

The expressions included a photo of two 15-year-old Mercer Island High School students making the Nazi salute, which recently circulated on social media. The Islander student newspaper also reported on a manipulated anti-Semitic video, which falsely portrayed students marching like Nazi soldiers and making the Nazi salute.  

According to The Islander article, a parent anonymously tipped the school district off to the photo and video. The district immediately began an investigation and issued a district-wide email condemning the anti-Semitic conduct. The email stated that based on the district’s investigation, “the images were not created or shared with malicious intent toward others,” though acknowledged that they were “highly offensive and hurtful” and promised to “ensure accountability, and support the healing of our school community.”

The days following the district’s email and the revelations of the anti-Semitic incidents have been deeply painful for many people in the community. These feelings were expressed in Seattle and local news channels and on social media, as well in private and public spaces and places of worship throughout Mercer Island. Members of the Jewish community shared the impacts of insensitive words and gestures on their kids by classmates who are misinformed or simply uninformed and uneducated about the Holocaust. A friend stated on Facebook: “Our community should place as much importance on teaching our kids to excel in EMPATHY as we do teaching them to excel in sports.” She encouraged others to take their families to visit the Holocaust Center for Humanity, to read The Diary of Anne Frank, to hear the stories of Holocaust survivors, and learn about Hitler and his horrific regime. 

More days passed, and more news and events unfolded, which also brought the hard work of recovery and healing. The 15-year-old students who appeared in the photo shared a statement apologizing for their actions, which was published in an article in The Mercer Island Reporter. The Rally for Inclusion in Mercerdale Park on Sunday brought community members and community leaders together in support, with speakers, music, and signs with affirmations of love and inclusivity. Mayor Debbie Bertlin attended the Rally for Inclusion, and in a statement to the rally participants, she described her hope for the community and the important work for the City ahead. Additionally, Rabbi Weiner shared a message for the community, published in full below, with guidance not only for healing but for “change, perspective, and growth” for us all.

Mayor Debbie Bertlin’s comments at the Rally for Inclusion:

“When the City Council put together the proclamation of tolerance talking about what we expected from ourselves, from our City leadership and staff, and from our regional elected leaders, I genuinely never thought we would have to represent this proclamation as frequently as we have.  We reiterated it during the events of Charlottesville. We reiterated it again during the aftermath of events of Pittsburgh. And there were were again [reiterating it] on a Tuesday night. For me, one of the things that is so special about this community is our ability to come together to have some cleansing conversations because clearly there was so much pain that was caused, whether intentionally or unintentionally.  I think the true strength of the community is how we go forward, and how tomorrow can be better than yesterday.  So I too received a beautiful email from Rabbi Weiner, and here’s what I took away from it in particular for the City Council:  ‘This is a teachable moment for us all. A transformation of pain into purpose, of hatred into healing, a glimpse of the abyss into a vision of the world that can be.’  So I look forward to working with all of you and all of the communities on the island to help us identify and support the vision of this work. Thank you.” ~Mayor Debbie Bertlin

Message from Rabbi Weiner
TEMPLE DE HIRSCH SINAI

From Tempest to Teshuvah

We were all shocked to see the recent viral photo of two Mercer Island High School students assuming a Nazi salute. Beyond its obvious insensitivity and toxicity, the photo seemed to reflect both a growing trend in such online portrayals amongst young people, and more broadly, the marked increase in antisemitic hate speech and violence that have plagued our culture over the last few years.

The two 15 year olds in the picture and their families recently reached out to meet. It was one in a series of interactions they’ve had with school officials, leaders of other Jewish organizations, and individual Jewish families amongst their peers. They acutely recognize the graveness of their behavior and the pain it caused. They were abjectly apologetic, genuinely remorseful, and seek ways to repair the serious damage their thoughtlessness has inflicted on our community.

One of the most critical acts of our faith is Teshuvah—a return from error to the path of change, perspective and growth. Faults, foibles and mistakes, even those that are significant, are inevitable, for we humans are but flesh and blood. And yet ours is the task to transcend these failures, to learn from our errant ways, to seek wholeness and healing, and to transform what is broken into that which is stronger, precisely in the broken places.

There is no excuse for what these young people did. They have none, nor seek one. But who amongst us would want to be characterized over a lifetime by our acts as teens or the dubious judgment of adolescence? They will be judged, as will we all, not by our inherent limits but by our response to them.

They have committed to the first stages of Teshuvah—an awareness of wrongdoing and a concerted intention to change. And they have a clear path to the ultimate fulfillment of their vow—through work with the ADL, JCC and Holocaust Center for Humanity. I have faith in these young people and their supportive parents, and I ask all of you to be open to their process.

We know from our tradition that to turn away someone seeking authentic forgiveness is sinful itself. And to disproportionately project the fears and trials of our larger culture on these two young people is a profound wrong, and would be a painfully ironic perpetuation of the very thing we seek to combat.

This is a teachable moment for all of us, a transformation of pain into purpose, hatred into healing, a glimpse of the abyss into a vision of the world that can be.

Blessings,

Daniel Weiner
Senior Rabbi

On a final note, as difficult as these incidents are to see on Mercer Island, throughout the greater Seattle community and the nation, let’s face them with courage and love. Let’s continue the conversation and education. We welcome your thoughts and comments below.