READING — More than once, 17-year-old Tali Shorr said she was told she should learn how to take a joke. The “jokes” were swastikas that have appeared around the town of Reading over the past year and a half.
On Sunday, hundreds gathered for a rally against anti-Semitism on the Town Common, where Shorr spoke about her experience as a Jewish student confronting the Nazi symbol.
“How is the death of 6 million of my people a joke?”
“It’s not to me,” said Shorr, a senior at Reading Memorial High School.
“Hearing these kinds of things said just makes me feel like I don’t have any support in my community, makes me feel unsafe in my community at school, and it also makes me feel kind of scared,” she said.
City and state leaders, School Committee members, local clergy, members of the Anti-Defamation League, and residents came together on a cold Sunday to stand in solidarity with their Jewish neighbors after members of Reading’s Select Board voted unanimously at their Oct. 16 meeting to sponsor the rally, along with the community organization Reading Embraces Diversity.
“My Italian friends, fathers, and grandfathers; my Irish friends, fathers, and grandfathers; my black friends, fathers, and grandfathers fought to defeat Nazism,” said Barry Berman, 60, vice chair of the Select Board, who grew up in New York City. “It wasn’t just an affront to Jews. It was an affront to every single American citizen who believes in freedom and democracy and love.”
The most recent anti-Semitic vandalism in Reading occurred two weeks ago, when two swastikas were drawn on the legs of a table in a science lab at the high school, according to school officials. In June, the words “Gas the Jews” were found written on a brick inside a vestibule in the lobby of Walter S. Parker Middle School. And last October , the Nazi symbol was drawn on furniture in the town library.
No arrests have been made in connection with any of those incidents, or others that have occurred in the town.
“We have a problem here in Reading, and I don’t think it has been properly addressed,” said Ilene Bornstein, 73, a retired teacher and 40-year resident of Reading. “It just gets you right in the gut.”
A friend with her held a sign that said: “There are 6 million reasons why I am here today,” referencing the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.
More than once, Bornstein wiped back tears as she listened to Dr. Anna Ornstein, 91, a child psychiatrist, tell of her experience in the 1930s. She was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“When I told my grandchildren that their great-grandfather was on house arrest they wanted to know, ‘Well, what did he do?’ ” said Ornstein, who has spoken at local schools many times about her life. “I said to them he had committed the worst crime of the 20th-century: He was born a Jew.”
Berman, who moved to Reading about a decade ago, said he remembers the day his second-grade son came home crying, because children in the schoolyard talked about hating Jews.
“And when he told them, ‘I’m Jewish,’ they were surprised,” Berman said. “And they said, ‘Well, we didn’t mean you. We don’t hate you. We just hate Jews.”
That kind of behavior is learned, Berman said, and can be unlearned.
Officials are trying to do this in Reading’s schools, he said. The ADL has provided training, some lessons have focused on the swastika’s meaning, and information on how not to be a passive bystander has been presented.
“We do not tolerate hateful words or actions, bigotry, or any other form of racist behavior in our classrooms, schools, or on our grounds,” said Elaine Webb, chair of the School Committee. “There is simply no place for it in a free society committed to equal rights for all.”
Rebecca Liberman said her parents pulled her out of a middle school in Minnesota when they discovered swastikas were being drawn in lockers. Now 53, Liberman is a Reading resident, the parent of a high school student and two older children who graduated from Reading’s public schools. A first-generation American, her father escaped from Nazi Germany with his family in the 1930s.
“Not addressing the hate, not calling it out, not telling people, that does not work,” Liberman said. “Ignoring these incidents and hoping they will go away sends a message that this behavior is tolerated, but standing up and being counted, saying ‘This is unacceptable’ — that sends a stronger message.”