Religious leaders, town and state officials, and residents gathered in Bedford Thursday to denounce recent acts of anti-Semitism in the schools and pledge their support to help make Bedford a safe and welcoming community for all cultures and races.
More than 300 people turned out to the public forum at the John Glenn Middle School organized by Superintendent Jon Sills in response to a series of incidents in the schools this year that have included a game called “Jail the Jews’’ and hateful graffiti.
“I’m not Jewish but I will not accept this,’’ said longtime resident Rachel Murphy, who started the Concerned Black Citizens of Bedford in the 1980s in response to issues her children were facing in the schools.
Murphy was one of several people who spoke at the forum, which was attended by Town Manager Rick Reed, Police Chief Robert Bongiorno, the four school principals, members of the School Committee and Board of selectmen, clergy from Bedford and surrounding communities, state Senator Mike Barrett of Lexington, state Representative Ken Gordon of Bedford, and a representative from the Middlesex district attorney’s office.
Some attendees said they were surprised to hear about the incidents, while others said discrimination happens more often than people realize.
“I haven’t gone six months without an act of racism,’’ said Claudia Fox Tree, a Native American, who lives in Bedford.
Fox Tree said she thinks that education on the issue needs to start in the classroom, and she hopes that’s where some of the issues can be addressed.
Officials and clergy members said that since the anti-Semitism incidents have come to light, other issues have also started to emerge.
“In addition to being aware of the increased incidents of anti-Semitism in town over the past year, we’re also aware of other instances of oppression that have begun to surface in our community — racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and other kinds as well,’’ said the Rev. Chris Wendell of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bedford. “We wish this wasn’t happening, but since they are happening, we’re very, very glad they are being talked about and surfacing, because we can’t move forward unless we talk about what’s really going on.’’
Wendell and other clergy members announced the creation of a Love Your Neighbor campaign that they hope will encourage residents to get to know one another so they can learn and appreciate their differences.
Rabbi Jill Perlman of Temple Isaiah in Lexington also praised school officials for being open and honest about the issues facing the community. She said she hopes Bedford will not be defined by bias but rather by how it responds to bias.
“We could have hid from this but instead we are growing,’’ she said. “We all want a Bedford free of hatred and free of bigotry. We want a Bedford of which we can be proud. There is no easy fix to this problem. One public forum won’t solve it, but it’s a start.’’
The most recent incidents have taken place at the district’s two elementary schools and included a game students called “Jail the Jews.’’ While Sills said the game was inappropriate, students were never actually “jailed.’’ He said the game took place inside a classroom and was more of a conversation between two students.
In other incidents that have emerged, a child reported that a classmate told her they were going to destroy her country because she was Jewish, Sills said. In another instance, a Jewish child was told by a peer that she could not have a cracker because Jews didn’t believe in Jesus Christ. Also recently, students discussing the difference between Christmas and Hanukkah made a comment that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, Sills said.
The incidents took place at both the Lieutenant Job Lane Elementary School and the Lieutenant Eleazer Davis Elementary School. In the fall, swastikas and hateful graffiti were found at Bedford High School and at one of the elementary schools.
“There’s no question there are some messages floating around which are absolutely unacceptable,’’ Sills said.
Bongiorno said the police department takes the incidents seriously and is actively investigating the graffiti as a hate crime.
“We do have some leads that we are developing and we’re hopeful we can bring closure to this,’’ he said.
Bongiorno encouraged residents with any information about the incidents to come forward.
Resident Meg Crumbine said in many of the incidents, the children are not to blame. But by educating the children, she hopes they can help educate family members who may be spreading hateful words.
“I feel the real answer lies with the children,’’ Crumbine said. “They are going to have to educate the parents.’’
Sills said the district has already taken steps to deal with the issues around professional development with teachers and curriculum, but is committed to doing more. He said he would listen to suggestions put forth by residents Thursday for a townwide multicultural event, and he liked the idea of residents signing a pledge to support the Love Your Neighbor’ campaign. Copies of the campaign’s logo were handed out at the meeting and residents were urged to display them in car windows and in their homes.
After the meeting, some stayed behind to gather in working groups to come up with additional ideas for addressing the issues.
“This is just a wonderful turnout for a very important meeting,’’ Sills said. “This was a great beginning of coming together as a community to reaffirm our values.’’Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo