NEWTON — The chanting started with a rude taunt: Newton North High School students cheering for their basketball team Friday night shouted, “Where are your girls?” to the fans of Catholic Memorial School, an all-boys school.
But the response from the Catholic Memorial fans to their opponents, many of whom are Jewish, left the Newton North crowd horrified and upset: “You killed Jesus!” shouted about 50 to 75 Catholic Memorial students. “You killed Jesus!”
The Newton North students fell silent, their faces registering surprise and anger.
“I found it chilling,” said Newton Superintendent David Fleishman, who arrived at the game, which was held at Newton South High School, about 20 minutes later. Fleishman said he was immediately approached by a visibly upset parent who told him she was shaken. “In my mind, this is incredibly upsetting and troubling, and they have a lot of work to do at Catholic Memorial,” Fleishman said.
Fleishman contacted the Anti-Defamation League about the incident, and said Newton students would discuss it at school on Monday. Newton officials will also discuss the Newton fans’ use of a joking reference to male anatomy, which Fleishman acknowledged could also be offensive.
The president of Catholic Memorial issued a statement Saturday condemning the “abhorrent behavior” of the students and promising to work to end it.
“Catholic Memorial School is deeply disturbed by the behavior of a group of student spectators who made an unacceptable chant Friday night while playing Newton North High School,” said Catholic Memorial President Peter F. Folan in a statement Saturday. “Catholic Memorial School believes deeply that intolerance, of any kind, is unacceptable. We apologize for the actions of our students and we will continue to strenuously address this issue within our community.”
The statement said no further comment would be made Saturday.
As soon as the Catholic Memorial students began their chant, said Fleishman, the interim principal spoke with Catholic Memorial administrators, who put an immediate stop to it. Both Fleishman and Folan said the students were reprimanded, and each personally apologized to the principal and shook his hand. Catholic Memorial won the game, which was the Division 1 South Final.
Nate Hollenberg, senior captain of the Newton North basketball team, said he and his teammates were warming up when the chanting occurred, and he did not know what happened until his parents told him at the end of the game.
“They might not have meant it so personally, but you should think about things before you speak,” said the 18-year-old, who is Jewish. “That hurts. They’re coming at my religion, at who I am, a big part of me. That’s just not right.”
Doug Haslam, whose son is a senior on the Newton North team and who has been attending games for years, said that taunting chants — such as “sausagefest,’’ a joking reference hurled on Friday at fans of the all-boys school — are common.
But he had never heard anything like Friday night’s calls about killing Jesus.
“There’s a lot of rowdy, rambunctious, probably crude and obnoxious chants, but there’s usually a line, and students rarely cross it,” Haslam said. “When they do, there are repercussions.”
One Newton resident who attended the game and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal said the chant sounded pre-planned, and that Catholic Memorial administrators and parents did not appear quick to try to halt it. And the president, he said, could have cleared the stands, or made an announcement condemning the chant in that moment, as the game had not started — but he did not.
One Catholic Memorial alumnus, who asked for anonymity to speak freely about the tight-knit school community, said he had never expected to hear an anti-Semitic chant from the school’s students, and that he was ashamed of their actions.
“I felt deeply embarrassed,” said the alumnus, who was not at the game.
The alumnus said the school he knew was a brotherhood, full of empathy and understanding, where students were taught to support each other, be open minded, respect other cultures and faiths.
He said he believed it was imperative for alumni to speak out about the chant. “It’s important to recognize that it’s happened, and to apologize,” he said.
Anti-Semitism has been a topic of concern in Newton recently, as three incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti were reported in recent months at F.A. Day Middle school, including an incident earlier this month in which “Burn the Jews” was scrawled on the wall of a boys’ bathroom.
Fleishman said the district does not tolerate that, either, and that the incidents were being investigated.
Friday’s chant came just one day after Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, speaking at Temple Emanuel in Newton, called for both Catholics and Jews to “build a civilization of love.” The talk marked the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a proclamation from Pope Paul VI in 1965 that repudiated anti-Semitism and stated that Jews did not bear collective responsibility for the death of Christ.
In a statement on Saturday, the archdiocese called the chant “unacceptable,” and said the incident presented an opportunity to promote “an important learning experience” for the students.
“We stand ready to assist Catholic Memorial in providing the student body with the awareness education that is needed to ensure that there is no recurrence of these actions or attitudes,” read the statement. Catholic Memorial is an independent Catholic high school.
Robert Trestan, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League New England , said Saturday that the immediate intervention by staff was excellent, but, “now comes the hard work.”
“We’re interested in working with both schools to make sure this doesn’t become a lost opportunity,” said Trestan. “This incident is a reminder that we still have a lot of work to do, and we need to do it together.”
Robert Leikind, director of the American Jewish Committee’s New England Office, also commended Catholic Memorial administrators for their quick response, but echoed Trestan’s sentiment that more discussion is needed.
“I won’t assume that because teens chanted this, they all hate Jews,” said Leikind. “But it’s clear that the spread of these ideas can generate hatred. And so it’s important to take them seriously.”
Newton Mayor Setti Warren said he was “deeply disappointed” by the chant. The city already had planned a community discussion for April 7 on how to make Newton welcoming to all, he said, and in the wake of the chant, it was even more important.
“I would extend an invitation to all to participate,” he said. “From outside of Newton, as well.”
Members of the Catholic Memorial community would be welcome, Warren said.