MARBLEHEAD – More than a dozen teens from the North Shore and throughout the region – and some from as far away as Virginia – have formed a Teen Antisemitism Task Force to inspire and educate others.
The teens are doing so at a time when reports of anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. The FBI’s most recent Hate Crime Statistics report showed a 7 percent increase in religious-based hate crimes in 2019, with 63 percent of the total directed at Jewish people and institutions.
Lucy New and Sofia Vatnik, both 17-year-old juniors at Marblehead High, are cochairing the new task force, which was formed following a discussion about anti-Semitism this past fall as part of the Lappin Foundation’s Teen Fellows program, said Deborah Coltin, executive director of the Salem-based foundation.
After the meeting, Coltin said New came to her and asked: “How do you get people involved? How do you get people to care?” New cited Black Lives Matter as an example of a large movement, and she asked how that energy could be harnessed to fight anti-Semitism.
“There’s a lot of talk about anti-Semitism,” Vatnik said. “I honestly haven’t seen anything that’s, like, ‘Let’s do something about it.’”
New said the task force is made up of about 15 teens from the North Shore, Greater Boston. and MetroWest along with three siblings from Virginia. Teens of all backgrounds and faiths are welcome to join, Coltin said.
New said there was no one event that triggered the formation of the task force, but a series of “culminating events,” including the discovery of boulders tagged with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti at Preston Beach in Swampscott and Marblehead on Sept. 2, an incident police are still investigating.
“And that’s the beach that I go to every day in the summer, so it’s kind of crazy to me to think it’s happening right there, in my hometown,” said New, who attends Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, where she is a student leader in the religious school. She has attended Camp Tel Noar in New Hampshire and plans to study abroad for two months at a high school in Israel starting in a couple of weeks. In addition, she and Vatnik are involved with the Jewish Teen Initiative of Greater Boston.
Both New and Vatnik said they have not experienced anti-Semitism from their friends.
“I think living in Marblehead, there’s a really good Jewish community here, that a lot of my friends just understand Judaism and respect it,” New said.
Vatnik, who attends Temple Sinai in Marblehead and would like to work at Camp Tevya in New Hampshire this coming summer, said she has not encountered anti-Semitism so much as the need to educate distant family members and friends who are Jewish about the importance of Israel and understanding the Holocaust.
In just the past few weeks, Vatnik said task force members have gotten to work and emailed officials in 30 communities on the North Shore and a few in Virginia asking them to proclaim Jan. 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. (That day, the Lappin Foundation is planning to hold a commemoration on Zoom at 7:30 p.m. with Holocaust survivor and author Judith H. Sherman, her daughter, and her granddaughter. More information can be found at lappinfoundation.org.)
So far, the teens have received responses back from leaders in Amesbury, Danvers, Essex, Salem, and Lynchburg, Virginia.
“In Salem, we strive to be a welcoming and inclusive community, working with community partners like Salem’s No Place for Hate Committee, the ADL, our new Race Equity Task Force, and others to educate and advocate toward this goal,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll in an email. Driscoll is planning to issue the proclamation. “Salem especially knows the importance of learning and understanding the critical lessons from history and how they should shape and inform our decisions and actions today,” the mayor said.
Amesbury Mayor Kassandra Gove emailed New that she planned to bring the proclamation request to the attention of the city’s new Equity and Inclusion Design Team.
“There are many events and experiences that are worthy of recognition and declaration,” Gove emailed New. “I’d like to see more of a conversation around them and real engagement opportunities for our community. You’ve given us one to think about.”
Danvers Town Manager Steve Bartha said in an email he had spoken with a task force member, and said in an interview he personally would endorse the proclamation “right now.”
However, he said the request came in too late to place it on the Select Board’s agenda in time for Jan. 27 because it needs to go before the town’s Human Rights and Inclusion Committee first for its recommendation.
“We discussed the possibility that a favorable recommendation there could then go to the Select Board,” Bartha said.
In addition, Alayah Henderson, a task force member who lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, said in an email the mayor of her city, MaryJane Dolan, is going to read their proclamation at the next City Council meeting on Jan. 12.
Coltin said Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt set an example last year with a proclamation timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The students used this proclamation as a template for other communities to follow.
“By observing International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Peabody, our community vows to always remember the terrible events of the Holocaust and to fight against anti-Semitism whenever it rears its ugly head,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “The annual commemoration also provides an opportunity to educate our young people about the Holocaust so they can remain vigilant against hatred and persecution and help prevent future genocides.”
The task force is also working to advertise a communitywide Zoom event being organized by the Lappin Foundation featuring a talk on Jan. 31 at 11 a.m. by Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi and white supremacist who is now dedicated to fighting racism.
“If a lot of kids attend this Zoom,” Vatnik said, “it will educate them about what’s it’s like, and they will get the correct information.”