Responding to the Swastika



Reprinted from Not IN Our Town

Hundreds gathered in Sacramento on the steps of the California state capitol for a rally against anti-Semitism, March 9, 2015.(Michael Alcalay) Credit: JTA, Michael Alcalay

By Becki Cohn-Vargas
Not In Our School Director

Becki Cohn-VargasAs a child of Holocaust survivors, I grew up hearing about my parents’ struggle to stay alive. Both my parents were born in Germany. Separately, as teens they each barely escaped with their families after Kristallnacht, my father as a refugee to Shanghai and my mother to England.

Even as I go to Temple on the Jewish High Holidays each year, with a police officer or security guard outside protecting us while we pray, I had not been frightened that anti-Semitism would rise to those horrific proportions again. Only once in my life was I called a “dirty Jew.” Yet, recently, as we heard about Jews being targeted and murdered in both France and Denmark, a fear rose inside me. After all, it is only 70 years after Auschwitz, and I still have living relatives who have been in concentration camps.

And then, less than 100 miles from my home, a Swastika was spray-painted in red on a Jewish fraternity at the University of California at Davis. Nathaniel Bernhard, vice president of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, told the Sacramento Bee, “Jewish people still can’t feel safe on their own campuses and in their own houses…Anti-Semitism still exists today. It’s not a fairy tale.” Recently, the National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students, produced by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, found that more than half of Jewish students at American colleges had witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism within the previous academic year.

Although I cannot help but feel that visceral fear, I believe in my heart that most people do want to get along. A Quaker family in England took my mother’s family in when they managed to escape from from Germany.

As an educator, I have devoted my life to ending hatred and bigotry. That is what drew me to work at Not in Our Town (NIOT). I try to pay attention to both the small and large acts of anti-Semitism and hate against people of all backgrounds and identities. I try to have a laser sharp focus on naming and responding to acts of hate against any individual or group.

Whether it is graffiti with swastikas or teens who desecrated a Jewish cemetery in France, like canaries in the gold mine, youth are reflecting some of the hate we have allowed to fester in our society. But, I also see signs of hope in the powerful responses:

In Davis, CA, Muslim, Sikh and other student leaders joined together to make a statement condemning the swastika painted on the fraternity wall.
In Sacramento, CA, when a swastika replaced the Jewish star on the Israeli flag, community leaders of many faiths swiftly responded by holding a rally on the steps of the California State Capitol to condemn the act.
After swastikas were painted on a Jewish Fraternity at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the three Greek Councils, Panhellenic, IFC and National Pan-Hellenic, issued a joint statement, “As Vanderbilt Greek men and women…We find the acts committed against AEPi insensitive, appalling, and disgusting. We stand up in solidarity with AEPi, Hillel, Chabad, and the entire Jewish community both here at Vanderbilt and across the country.”
I am heartened by these responses, and they remind me why our work at Not In Our Town and Not In Our School is so important. I look forward to continuing to join with others across the country to speak up about small and large intolerant acts toward any group that is targeted by hate.


Overland Park, Looking Forward, Not Over Our Shoulders


Overland Park: Looking Forward, Not Over Our Shoulders

Students from high schools across Overland Park, KS wore white in honor of Reat Underwood


by Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director


A day after she lost her son and father to a senseless act of hate in Overland Park, Kansas, Mindy Underwood came forward in a show of great courage.

“Because there is such an outpouring, we did not want to hide, and not let people grieve with us,” she said.

This week, the nation stands in shock at the horrible killings perpetrated in Kansas City as an act of anti-Semitism and hate by a Ku Klux Klan leader with a history of violence. The shooter not only targeted Jews, but the people of many other faiths who frequent Jewish institutions like the community center and retirement home in Overland Park.

For Jews, many of whom have relatives who experienced the Holocaust first-hand, the danger posed by anti-Semitism is real. Just days before the attack, the Anti-Defamation League had distributed a security bulletin, warning of an increased risk of attacks on Jews during the Passover season and near April 20, the birthday of Hitler.

Many Americans do not realize that Jews “live with having to look over their shoulder all the time,” said Karen Aroesty, Regional Director at ADL St. Louis. “We have to hire cops for services for extra protection. In New York, you have to go through a metal detector to go into some synagogues. This is unique to the Jewish community. I hope people will learn and understand.”

Retired Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops reflected on the murders from an interfaith perspective.

“This is such a tragedy, and it happened during Passover and Holy Week. Just recently, I participated in a Jewish-Christian summit where we covenanted again as people of faith to work together for good in the world. This horrible incident reminds us how much hate is still in the world.” This horrific shooting spree draws together Jews and non-Jews alike to stand against all forms of violence and intolerance.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor, of Temple Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, CA gives us a message of hope:

“So, friends, let’s not lose the pain, the rage, the hurt – or the joy – that life contains. Every Jewish generation is called to see itselfas emerging from Egypt, from constriction to expansiveness…Some of us had a hard time breathing today, and with the love and care of a community dedicated to furthering life, to deepening joy, we will breathe deeper and deeper with each passing day.”


Read more here at The Kansas City Star.


Many community response events have taken place in Overland Park and across the country. Here are some that are coming up:


Candlelight Vigil and walk at the Overland Park JCC, Friday, April 18

6 PM Shabbat Service at the Overland Park JCC

7 PM walk from the Overland Park JCC to the Village Shalom Retirement Home

Click here for more information on the Candle Light Memorial Walk.


Find out about other events

We are supporting the local community of Overland Park and sharing information on events taking place there and across the country. 

Click here to find and post more events on our Not In Our Town Facebook Page.


Take action in your town

The Not In Our Town community both comes together and reaches out in moments like these. In Bowling Green, OH, the community has joined with Bowling Green State University to say “Not In Our Town!”