Last week, I found myself taking 45 middle schoolers on a four-hour bus ride to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. While they were certainly struck as they walked through the train car on display that shuttled millions to their deaths and moved to tears as they gazed upon the pictures of a lost Jewish community in Eastern Europe, I didn’t realize that the real lesson would come the next day back in New Jersey.
Let me back up. In September, I began a new venture at the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest as the Gottesman Fellow — bringing Jewish educational and cultural programing to the city of Newark. I had a list of programs I wanted to achieve within the two-year period of the grant. High on my list was taking Newark students to the Holocaust museum on a Rubell Remembrance Journey, when students from northern New Jersey are bused to Washington for a visit to the museum and reflect afterward on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On the bus ride, the students hear the testimonies of two survivors and watch the video testimony of Morris Rubell, a Holocaust survivor whose son, Michael, started these trips in his memory.
The day was a true inspiration, from the moment these young, smiling fifth- and sixth-graders boarded the bus to the moment their bleary eyes thanked us 16 hours later. Many of these children had never left Newark or New Jersey, nor had the opportunity to take what they are learning in the classroom and see real artifacts and exhibits that relate to their studies.
They sang "Happy Birthday" to one of the survivors on the eve of his 90th birthday. They gazed at the reflecting pool in their nation’s capital and reflected on an event that took place an ocean away and nearly a lifetime ago.
And I was fortunate enough to have the chance to speak with many of them, explaining things to them, and even more important, hearing how they were changed by the experience. I could go on and on about the things the children noted while at the museum and later when we spoke beside Lincoln underneath the words of his famed Gettysburg Address.
I knew the impact was great and young lives were changed, yet it wasn't until the next day that I could put my finger on why it was so important that they needed to be changed. As I sat in a meeting at one of the Jewish day schools in my area, I received word that our JCC was one of the ones targeted, and evacuated, because of a bomb threat. The kind woman I was meeting with simply shrugged her shoulders sadly and said, “This is our new normal.”
By the time I was back in my office, the building had been given the all clear and reopened. Stories were flying of children as young as 18 months being rushed into the cold, jackets not zippered and hats not secured. Someone else spoke of the senior citizens with memory loss, there for a day program, being ushered out of their normal routines, some confused even more, and herded across a busy four-lane street with sirens blaring and police cars racing around them. Women in the locker room were told to leave in just their robes and flip flops, toes freezing as they were graciously driven home by others so they did not have to stay at the evacuation site without clothes.
I was glad to hear that the community came together, everything went off as it should have and no one was in danger.
Yet I felt truly angry. I thought back to what that woman said in her office a few hours earlier when I had first heard the news. I’m sorry, but I cannot accept that this is our “new normal.” I just can’t. It is not normal for fear to emblazon a community and disrupt it so immensely from toddlers to seniors. It is just NOT NORMAL. In fact, it’s hatred, it’s anti-Semitism and it’s terrorism.
For years I have been talking, teaching and writing about the growth of anti-Semitism in our society, and most people just shrug, maybe nod in sympathy or even laugh off what I am talking about. They tell me it’s too scary for young kids to learn about the Holocaust. They say they don’t want their kids to be scared or to have nightmares. They say it doesn’t affect them because they “aren’t so Jewish.”
Well today, I hope those people take a second look and realize that this is happening. Not just in Israel, not just in Europe, but here in the United States.
Last night, as I sat in my almost 11-year-old’s bedroom, I thought about this “new normal” and I made a promise to myself. I might not be able to stop anti-Semitism in this world, but I certainly can change a few students’ lives in Newark and make sure they understand the impact of hatred. And I can certainly ensure that my children will understand the importance of combating hatred. That they will know the history behind anti-Semitism. That when they go forth into the world and are faced with hatred, they, too, will not accept that this is “normal.”
Ilyse Muser Shainbrown lives in Livingston, N.J., with her husband and three school-age sons, Sam, Max and Jake. After teaching middle and high school history for many years, she is now pursing a master’s degree in Holocaust and genocide studies.