The senior rabbi at one of Newton’s largest synagogues delivered a sermon Saturday urging the community to learn from the painful events of a recent citywide meeting on prejudice that was disrupted by activists.
Rabbi Wesley R. Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel said he was “saddened and embarrassed,” when he read about and watched a video of the April 7 meeting at City Hall called by Mayor Setti Warren to talk about making the city a more welcoming place for all people.
“In the course of the evening, an African American woman was trying to share her son’s experience of racism,” Gardenswartz said. “While she is speaking her truth, to our great shame, several Jewish activists talked over her, disrupted her, heckled her, claiming that the purpose of the meeting was to talk about anti-Semitism, not racism.”
The meeting was called after two incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti were discovered at a Newton middle school, but the gathering was not conceived as a forum to discuss only those incidents. However, a group of activists thought it should have focused solely on anti-Semitism.
“Not hearing an African American woman’s story of racism because we only have bandwidth to talk about anti-Semitism was a very bad moment for the Jewish community of Newton,” Gardenswartz said. “When I heard about it, and read the press coverage, and saw the clip, I was saddened, and embarrassed, as a rabbi in Newton, as a Jew, and as a human being.”
Temple Emanuel is a Conservative congregation with more than 1,200 families representing a diversity of Jews from Newton and surrounding communities, according to its website.
Charles Jacobs, a leader of the activists who protested at the forum, called Gardenswartz’s sermon “a sad reflection on the failure of Jewish leadership.”
“He has no firsthand knowledge of what happened in the meeting,” Jacobs, founder of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, said Tuesday in an e-mail to the Globe. “He is unfairly demonizing Jewish activists who are concerned about an unresponsive mayor who refuses to deal with anti-Semitism except as part of some generic discrimination.”
Gardenswartz’s sermon did not address the identity of the activists who disrupted the forum.
He said he called both Warren and school Superintendent David Fleishman and apologized “for conduct that is unworthy of us and inconsistent with our own ideals.” Gardenswartz said he also tried to find out the identity of the African American woman so that he could apologize to her as well.
Anti-Semitic graffiti has been found scrawled on the bathroom walls at two of Newton’s schools, with the first two incidents at Day Middle School coming to light months after their discovery. In addition, racist question were submitted via an anonymous online site as the Black Leadership Club prepared for Black Culture Day at Newton North, and Warren said that after speaking with students he learned of other incidents of prejudice happening in the city.
The community meeting was called to respond and start a discussion to address to all of these things, Warren said, not to focus solely on one form of hate.
“Disturbing incidents of anti-Semitism did happen: swastikas in the snow, anti-Semitic slurs on the wall,” Gardenswartz told his congregation. “There is no dispute that these happened, and there is no dispute that it is totally unacceptable.”
The group disrupting the April 7 meeting also questioned the curriculum used in the Newton Public Schools, making similar allegations of anti-Israel bias that were raised and addressed by school officials several years ago.
“The rabbi has no knowledge of what is being taught in the schools,” Jacobs said.
Gardenswartz said this is an issue on which people disagree, but in his 19 years at Temple Emanuel he has spoken with teens who are students in the city’s public schools, and their parents, and has never heard anyone say there is a problem.
“Our parents, and our students, have a strong voice. They are not afraid to speak their mind. If parents or students thought there were anti-Semitism or anti-Israel bias in the curriculum, I would have heard about it from them. And I never have,” he said.
Gardenswartz said he doesn’t consider the curriculum question to be a real issue, but that what happened at the meeting is.
“When a person or a community has a really bad moment, when we are not faithful to our own highest ideals, it is important not to ignore what happened, but to learn from what happened,” he said.
The rabbi asked his congregation to consider how their own pain impacts their ability to see that of others.
If you are mourning a death of a loved one, he asked, can you feel someone else suffering a similar loss? You have a health crisis, can you also listen to a friend who is going through similar pain?
Gardenswartz said the “good news” that came from the meeting was that while some adults may have behaved badly, Jewish teens were able to see their own pain as well as that of others.
He quoted Josh Sims Speyer, a student who spoke at the meeting: “When we say one type of hate speech is worse than another, we build walls in our community.”
“We all need to bring two eyes to see the pain of somebody else. That is a core Jewish value,” Gardenswartz told his congregation. “In the future may the phrase ‘Jewish Activists’ refer to Jews who are active in bringing this Jewish value into the world.”