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Bedford faces anti-Semitic incidents in its schools

The Bedford school superintendent said he is taking swift action with police, clergy, and town officials to address a string of anti-
Semitic incidents that have taken place in three schools this year, including hateful graffiti at the high school and a game among elementary school students in which Jews were being targeted and “jailed’’ by Christians.

Superintendent Jon Sills said an elementary school student said she was told that her country would be destroyed because she is Jewish, and another child was told by a peer that she could not have a cracker because Jews do not believe in Jesus Christ.

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School and town officials said they will not tolerate the behavior and are taking steps to increase awareness, add more diversity instruction in the curriculum, and seek input from the community about how else to respond.

“Bedford has a long and proud tradition of being a welcoming and inclusive community,’’ Sills said in an interview. “It’s a very caring community that has taken a strong stand around issues of intolerance. The reality is anti-Semitism exists in our society, and Bedford is not impervious to it.’’

Sills has sent two letters to parents since the most recent incidents were reported, detailing what took place and his response. The first letter was sent March 10 and the second the following day.

He has scheduled a community forum for 7 p.m. March 20 at the John Glenn Middle School auditorium.

“I believe that the broader the response, the less likely the perpetrators of hate speech will feel that their behavior is permissible, and that Bedford’s proud claim of being a community that refuses to tolerate hate will be imbued with renewed meaning,’’ Sills wrote in his March 11 letter.

In the meantime, Sills said the school leadership team has met and is reaching out to groups like Facing History and Ourselves, an educational organization that addresses anti-Semitism and racism, and to local clergy and to town and community leaders to both deepen and broaden the impact of their work.

He said the town’s Response System in Voluntary Partnership, a group of school, town, police officials, clergy, and community leaders that was formed several years ago to address hate incidents and crimes, will reconvene next week.

“Hopefully being open about it, we as a community can make a strong statement that we won’t tolerate that in our schools or our community,’’ Sills said.

Mike Rosenberg, a member of Bedford’s Board of Selectmen and an active member of the town’s Jewish community, said he is saddened by the incidents but is satisfied they are being addressed.

He praised Sills for his quick response and making sure the issues were brought to light.

“It’s very troubling and disappointing when children that small are saying hurtful things they don’t even understand,’’ Rosenberg said. “It’s troubling to consider where they might be hearing some of these things, from television, adults or the community.’’

Rosenberg said he has lived in town for 40 years and does not think the incidents are reflective of Bedford as a whole. He described the town as a diverse community that educates a variety of students through the Metco program and from Hanscom Air Force Base.

“This is a good place,’’ Rosenberg said. “A bad thing happened, and we’re going to go after it. To me, it’s the response to an episode like this that will define us.’’

Sills said the first incident took place last fall at the high school. Swastikas and “Kill the Jews’’ graffiti were found, prompting a school and police investigation, but no arrests were made.

Following the graffiti incidents, school, clergy, town, and community leaders met to share information and discuss responses, he said. They also began a working relationship with the educational group Facing History and Ourselves.

The principal held several meetings at the high school, during which a few of the Jewish students described some of the difficulties they have experienced growing up as a minority in Bedford.

The incidents involving the district’s younger children happened within the past two weeks at the Lieutenant Job Lane Elementary School and the Lieutenant Eleazer Davis Elementary School. Sills said police have been informed, but are not investigating because officials do not consider them criminal in nature.

Nancy Wolk, who has daughters in the sixth and fourth grade, said she was surprised to hear about the incidents. Her husband and children are Jewish, and she said they have never experienced any intolerance in town.

She hopes residents have a strong response.

“I would like to see the community come out as a whole to say we don’t tolerate attacks on people — especially in terms of race, ethnicity, or religious — and get that message across to not just kids, but families that may be holding on to some stereotypes that are being passed down,’’ Wolk said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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