In early 1954, my father was unemployed and in debt, with a toddler (my brother Alan) and a pregnant wife who was weeks away from giving birth (to me!). My dad, a social worker, then applied for and was hired to work with children and teens at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center. I was always told that had he not gotten that job, they would not have had the money to bring me home from the hospital!
Over the next few years, my father gained fame at the JCC as “Zimmy,” working with a generation of New Orleans youth. Meanwhile, I started out as a product of the JCC nursery school, just the beginning of my own deep involvement with that institution. I spent most of my teen years there, at first playing in the game room, then as a member of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization that was housed there, and earning my first paycheck as the game room supervisor.
From there I went on to a variety of other jobs, including camp counselor, front desk receptionist, assistant bookkeeper, chaperone to a teen Disney World trip, chaperone to a senior citizens Miami trip, and more, while also getting involved as a volunteer on numerous committees, including the committee that built what was then the new high school game room and racquetball courts. Not to mention being the in-house Jewish music specialist for Purim Adloyadah carnivals and many other events. This was followed by my social work field work placement there, and ultimately, my employment starting in 1977 as the children’s program worker and day camp director.
And of course, my most successful endeavor at the New Orleans JCC was meeting Janet, who first came there as a social work intern from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, followed by her employment after graduation as the senior citizens worker. Many of you know the story, which I won’t go into now, but the short version is that after being co-workers and friends for four years, we got engaged, then started dating, and got married six months later.
Everything I’ve done with my life since then has been influenced by, and enhanced by, my experiences growing up and being involved with the JCC. So you can imagine my personal joy when (my daughter) moved to New Orleans four years ago and found a place for herself as the music specialist in the JCC nursery school. Miss Meryl brings such joy and vibrancy to the children every week, and I know that she, like me and her grandfather, finds great reward in being a part of this wonderful institution.
And then, right after Meryl moved to New Orleans, my mother returned, after being away for 35 years. After her second husband died, she remained in Maryland for a few years, but never found a “place” for herself. So she picked up and moved back to N.O., and where did she find that place? That’s right. At the JCC, where she goes multiple times during the week for movies, lunches, speakers, performances, rummikub, and most importantly, for a closely connected community. Add to that her joy at being identified as the grandmother of Miss Meryl, as fine an accolade as a grandmother could wish for.
This long setup all leads, as you surely expect, to the events of last week. As Meryl drove up to the JCC, she saw the street alongside the building blocked by police cars with flashing lights. She learned from the nursery school director that a bomb threat had been called in, leading to the evacuation of the building. While this surely wasn’t unexpected, given that dozens of such calls have plagued JCC’s around the country in the past month, it was nevertheless a startling and disturbing event. But being the professional, and the person that she is, Meryl stepped right in to get the kids, who had evacuated to a school across the street, singing and laughing, much to the joy of the teachers who were running out of tricks in a facility with no toys, no books, and no playground. Thank goodness the threat was unfounded, as have all the other JCC bomb threats, but of course, we can’t be sure that will always be the case. People have been killed and injured at JCCs in the past, most notably in Los Angeles in 1999 and in Kansas City in 2014. And given the toxic environment in our country now, there is no reason to be optimistic about where this might go.
But that doesn’t mean that we simply sit on our hands and hope for the best. The environment in our country is not an accident. It is not random. It is a direct result of the words and actions, and inactions of Donald Trump. I have called him out in the past for his hurtful and hateful words about Muslims, about Mexicans, about women, about LGBT Americans, and about Jews.
But as I’ve made clear, this latest incident is very personal to me. Donald Trump has, on multiple occasions and in multiple ways, given succor to the haters. At best he has ignored what is going on, though in reality he has often encouraged the hate, and at worst he has expressly emboldened those who hold anti-Semitic beliefs.
By using the charged phrase “America First” during the campaign, and then after strong criticism from the Jewish community regarding the anti-Semitic baggage of those words, repeating it in his inaugural address. By claiming to not know who David Duke is. By blaming Jewish reporters for the online anti-Semitic messages and threats they’ve received. By not only refusing to expressly mention in his Holocaust Memorial statement that the Jews were the primary target of the Holocaust, but in fact rejecting the State Department’s statement that did include that reference. By answering a reporter’s question about why he didn’t condemn the JCC bomb threats by talking about how many electoral votes he received. By responding to an Orthodox Jewish reporter who asked a similar question (after being very specific that he wasn’t questioning Trump’s personal beliefs, only his response to these incidents) by shouting him down and making the absurd and meaningless claim that he (Trump) is “the least anti-Semitic person that you have ever seen in your entire life.”
You don’t think that Trump’s words and actions are directly responsible for the rise in overt anti-Semitism? During the presidential campaign, David Duke attacked Jews for opposing Trump, saying that “these Jewish supremacists who control our country are the real problem and the reason why America is not great,” and that “we expect him [Trump] to be our White Knight.” And when Trump shut down the Orthodox reporter last week, Andrew Anglin, editor of the vile anti-Semitic Daily Stormer website wrote that it “was one of the greatest things I’ve ever witnessed in my life.” The anti-Semites do not hide their joy at seeing Donald Trump in the White House.
Does it mean anything that after all these months of ignoring the growing anti-Semitic movement from the alt-right in America, Trump finally issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism? Absolutely not. Maybe it will mean something if he would devote as much attention to this issue as he does to demonizing the press, or repeating how great he is, or tweeting insults at anyone who has ever criticized him. Maybe it will mean something if he gets rid of the Master of Emboldening anti-Semites, Steve Bannon. Maybe it will mean something if he shows any understanding that having a Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild does not give him a pass in this area; it actually makes his behavior even more disgraceful.
But until then, I will continue to speak out about Trump’s despicable behavior. I will contact my senators and congressman. I will carry signs and write letters. And I urge everyone else to do the same. Even if–in fact, especially if–you are a Republican, or a supporter of Trump’s political agenda. Because this is not about being pro-choice or anti-abortion. It is not about favoring or opposing stricter gun laws. This is not about health care, the environment, national security, privacy, gay rights, women’s rights, fewer regulations, or infrastructure. This is about our country, where all are created equal, with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We Jews, and all Americans, must fight against all forms of bigotry. As long as Donald Trump hides behind the double-talk, the tweets and the attacks on those who disagree with him, as long as he treats this all as a political game instead of a real and growing threat which he himself has enabled, America will not be the great nation that we all desire and all deserve.
When I worked in the game room at the JCC, one of the kids who used to come and play there was Mitch Landrieu, who is now the mayor of New Orleans. Meryl just saw Mitch Landrieu at the JCC as well. But he wasn’t there to play. He was there to lend his support and the support of the city of New Orleans to the Jewish community whose safety was threatened. Donald Trump–you’ve said many times you want to make America safe again. I suggest you start by making the JCC’s safe again so Miss Meryl can sing with the children for pleasure, not to calm them down while police sirens blare and FBI agents search the building.
(New Orleans native Mark Zimmerman’s Jewish Trivia column appears weekly in the CCJN.)