When a friend, cause or institution we support has been hurt or under attack, it’s human nature—and admirable—for people to want to “do something” to be helpful. Unfortunately, onlookers’ idea of being helpful is not always what’s most useful to those who have been hurt. We’ve seen it recently at one Planned Parenthood medical office, where pro-choice protesters gathered to counter those protesting against abortion. The protest went on despite the organization’s preference for non-engagement at its clinic sites in deference to patient safety.
And, I saw it two weeks ago when we learned of yet another round of telephoned bomb threats received by Jewish institutions–thankfully once again all hoaxes. This was the second time one of our local agencies had been targeted, and as the associate director of our local Jewish Community Relations Council I had an inkling of what the next hours and days would look like.
Things became intensely personal for me, though, when we were told that two local institutions had received bomb threats and that one of them was my older sons’ Jewish day school. I reminded myself that all the previous threats had been hoaxes, took a deep breath, and jumped into action with our staff.
The school and local law enforcement handled the threat beautifully. The next day we began working in earnest on a united communal response, bringing in elected officials, law enforcement and our interfaith partners. At some point we began receiving inquiries about an event that a small group of people not directly connected to the targeted institutions were planning. They intended to have a rally right outside my sons’ school, at the carpool line at 7:30 a.m. They were calling the event “Bagels, Not Bombs.”
At that moment, my mom instincts completely took over. “Bagels, Not Bombs?” What kind of message is that? Did I really want my sons, who thankfully had been so calm and unafraid in the face of a hateful person threatening to blow up their school, to see people waving signs about bombs at morning drop-off? More importantly, did I want an event at my kids’ school that was open to the public, was being advertised everywhere on social media, and could attract anyone? Our school devotes a ton of money and resources to security, and preserving the integrity of the carpool line is a critical part of that effort.
I quickly learned that the school had not sanctioned this event, but word was nonetheless spreading like wildfire on Facebook. It seemed like a well-meaning effort to stand up to anti-Semites and support the school. However, at JCRC, where our job is to always be sensitized to the larger implications for our Jewish community of, well, everything, we were alarmed. We worked with the school, and asked the organizers to cancel the event for the students’ safety and emotional well-being.
But they held their rally across the street from the school. Dozens of people showed up, as did many TV, radio and print news outlets. Later in the day, the organizers enthused on social media about the attendance and press coverage they had garnered.
Again, this rally’s organizers were well-meaning, but they don’t have children at our school. They know nothing about our school’s culture, or our children’s needs. Moreover, the head of my children’s school had told them not to proceed with their plan because it would be detrimental to the students’ well-being.
The fallout? Well, the school understandably put additional security in place for morning carpool. Other parents told me their children were distraught because they knew there was going to be a rally, they saw the extra police officers and patrol cars, and this scared them. From own my perspective, precious time and energy was wasted in trying to contain this situation, at a time when we needed to devote every second to responding to the crisis caused by the bomb threats themselves.
I must admit that I am angry—as a Jewish communal professional, but mostly as a Jewish mother. After the trauma earlier in the week, I am furious that the tranquility of my children’s morning drop-off was compromised. If people wanted to hold their own rally, geh gezunt aheit, as my mother would have said. But not at or near my kids’ school. Not for the benefit of TV cameras. And not when the people I trust to take care of my children have told you to stay away.
One of the first lessons I learned as a Jewish community relations professional was to be sure to ask others what they need in times of crisis. We are imperfect human beings, which means that oftentimes, what we think, even what we truly believe, would be helpful is actually quite the opposite of that. Sadly, there will be more crises in the years to come. So to anyone who feels the impulse to respond, why not ask first? And if the answer is an appreciative but firm “no thank you,” please take that “no” for an answer, and find another way to express your solidarity.