By ANGELA MAONE, Special to the CCJN
With the rash of anti-Semitic attacks in New York and questions about the security of the New Orleans Jewish community, Arnie Fielkow, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, and Aaron Ahlquist, the executive director of the South Central Region of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), held a joint press briefing for members of the news media only at the Uptown Jewish Community Center on St. Charles Avenue.
The reason for the unusual briefing, held on Wed., January 8, was to spotlight many of the troubling current events, such as the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and in California as well as the Chanukah attack in Monsey, New York and how they may relate to the New Orleans Jewish community as well as to take the opportunity to have a dialogue between the news media and their respective organizations.
Ahlquist began by stating that this is a time where there is an increasing need to address issues that are facing the Jewish community and to present a united front against anti-Semitism or other forms of discrimination and hate. In this new decade, he said, it’s time to refresh and renew relationships within the local media.
“The Jewish people cannot be safe until all people are safe,” Ahlquist stated. “ADL is also concerned about the normalization of hate and our exposure to it. We also need to focus on resisting this normalization,” the ADL regional director whose territory include Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
ADL is a worldwide organization and many areas of the world are danger spots right now, especially Europe and Latin America, Ahlquist added.
All members of the CCJN’s editorial staff -reporters Dean Shapiro, Nicholas Hamburger and Angela Maone and editor Alan Smason – were in attendance at the briefing.
Fielkow noted that the Federation of Greater New Orleans is also part of a national network, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Like the national ADL, Federation has been in New Orleans for 106 years and primarily raises funds for distribution to itself and its four constituent agencies: Jewish Family Service, Jewish Community Center, Jewish Community Day School, and Tulane Hillel. In addition, there are a a dozen or so beneficiary agencies.
The Jewish Federation is also a social justice group, Fielkow added, and stands proudly wherever there are issues of hate against any facet of the community-at-large. He went on to say that he was proud of the work the Federation did after Katrina to get the New Orleans community back on track and the work the Jewish Newcomers Program did to help our community post-Katrina.
Post-Katrina, the makeup of the community has been altered and education is the key to making awareness of the diverse community that exists now, he continued. Traditional Jewish issues and educating the community that now exists about Israel is an important part of what the Federation does, keeping an open dialogue about policies and politics.
In the last three years, Fielkow stated he was proud of the bridging activities between the African-American and Jewish communities. This includes a day-long trip to historic civil rights sites and the Civil Rights Museum in Selma. The Federation just concluded its second such field trip, in which 100 Jewish and African-American middle school students visited Birmingham and Selma to view civil rights’ landmarks.
Fielkow talked of the continuing relationship between the Federation and St. Augustine High School and a scholarship program Federation has supported there. A monthly radio program on an urban station and booking national speakers to speak on Jewish-African-American community relations at historic black college like Xavier, SUNO and Dillard will continue into 2020 as a measure to cement relationships between the two communities
The upcoming Celebration of Peace weekend is also an important activity within the Jewish and Islamic communities, which has been occurring for many years during the weekend prior to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This year Friday daytime prayers at the largest mosque in New Orleans will kick off activities followed by an inclusive Shabbat service at Temple Sinai on Friday night, January 17.
Activities culminate on Monday, January 20 with a program and march together under one banner at the city’s MLK event.
Fielkow took the opportunity to announce two new initiatives: the Goldring Family Foundation Center for Jewish/Multi-cultural Affairs and the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Family Foundation Center for Interfaith Families.
The Goldring Center will focus on four areas: Jewish and African American, Jewish and Hispanic, LGBTQ, and multifaith relationship building and initiatives.
The Leventhal Center will focus on interfaith families. “58% of the Jewish world marries outside of the Jewish faith today,” said Fielkow. “It’s a topic facing Judaism throughout the country. It’s a safe space to help interfaith families.” He said the center will launch on July 1, 2020.
Fielkow said when he was installed as CEO three years ago, he would never have thought that one of the most relevant topics today would be security and anti-Semitism. Working with ADL to combat hate and anti-Semitism is an important part of the Federation’s work.
“Anti-Semitism is just one expression of hate. We have many other expressions, from racism, to xenophobia, to many other areas where people want to hate,” Fielkow stated. “The best way to combat that is for us to come together and to stand together shoulder to shoulder, and to speak out loudly when we see hate because hate against one is hate against all.”
He went on to say that the best way to drown out the hate is to form these important relationships within the community and to stand as partners going into the future.
Ahlquist added that the ADL has three main areas of focus regarding hate: they advocate, investigate and educate. ADL was one of the major driving forces that pushed the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, he said. But, he stated, there are still states that have no meaningful hate crime legislation.
When ADL investigates, they work closely with law enforcement, he explained.
“Since Tree of Life, there have been 13 foiled plots that had been targeting faith institutions,” Ahlquist said. Online sites and spaces are a concern because voices of hate are being given a louder voice and finding like-minded individuals across the world is very easy. ADL is training officers on what is a hate crime and how to prosecute it. Bias training is also important to restore trust and confidence within the community, Ahlquist opined.
Educational programs are essential to changing the climate of hate. ADL programs “No Place for Hate” and “A World of Difference” focus on anti-bullying and help students learn how to support one another and help administrators focus on safe spaces within the school system. “Unity through Understanding Day” is at the end of January in which ADL partners with Loyola Law School. Some 200 sophomores from 30 schools spend the day building skillsets around anti bias training and learn how to be peer trainers and take the information back to their own schools.
Ahlquist went on to say that monitoring and tracking hate is a part of what ADL does and since 1979 they have compiled an annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents. Two of the three highest years for reported incidents were 2017 and 2018.
Physical attacks have increased dramatically, according to studies. Ahlquist said he believed that trend continued in 2019 and that when the data is tallied it will show an increase. The FBI also releases its hate crime statistics in November. ADL releases its data in February or early March.
Ahlquist suggested there are also problems with underreporting. One of the big challenges is getting an accurate portrayal of hate crimes being reported, he said.
Joshua Force, chairman of the Board of Trustees for Federation, also spoke of security being a key issue for faith-based communities not only in New Orleans but the rest of the country as well. Fund raising is also an important part of security. The two new centers will be a focal point in reaching out not only to the Jewish community but to the greater New Orleans area as well.
ADL regional chair Ann Thompson also spoke about her organization. ADL, she reitiereated “is an anti-hate organization – that is what we do.”