By Andrew Wroblewski
From a hurtful image spawned a “Night of Unity” at The Chai Center in Dix Hills on Sunday.
Days after an image of Commack High School students wearing anti-Semitic t-shirts was proliferated online, Rabbi Yackov Saacks and his staff at the center welcomed nearly 350 people for a meeting to discuss what can be done to respond to, and learn from, the incident.
“You have to be outraged [with the photo], but you also need to find solutions,” Saacks said on Monday.
Community members, Commack School District officials, politicians, Jewish clergy members and a Holocaust survivor were some of those in attendance as Saacks explained the three goals he has set out to accomplish in the wake of the image that he said is “hurtful to the core.”
“We need to work with the school districts to enhance education in the matters of bias, racism, anti-Semitism; we need to teach children how to properly respond to incidents like this and not wait until they’re discovered; and we need to create an awareness in our community that we’re all God’s children,” Saacks, director of The Chai Center, said.
The meeting came together after Commack Superintendent Donald James met with six rabbis, including Saacks, from the Dix Hills, Commack and East Northport communities on April 16 to address and discuss the image.
The district first acknowledged the photograph – which contains two students wearing red t-shirts that have a swastika and the word Auschwitz drawn on them – on April 16 via a statement posted its website. According to the statement, the photo was taken off-campus during spring break and prompted an investigation by the district.
An updated statement posted on April 17 said the district was “appalled” by the actions of these students and that “consequences… as allowed by the law” were imposed.
“Prejudice in any form is reprehensible,” the statement reads.
Commack Public Relations Coordinator Brenda Lentsch also confirmed that an “Interfaith Counsel” will be created within the district to help educate students on issues of prejudice.
On Sunday, Saacks said he had the opportunity to meet with parents of the students in the image.
One parent, he said, apologized for and was mortified and devastated by the incident.
Another asked Saacks to speak with their child. The rabbi is hopeful that, through that conversation, he may be able to explain to the student the extent of their actions in an effort to turn them into an ambassador for the Jewish community.
“I think this is a teaching moment,” Saacks said.
Through it all, Saacks stressed that this issue is not just one secluded to the Commack community, but a larger issue where people must understand it’s not acceptable to cause such pain to another person.
“People need to realize that their actions may not be criminal, but that doesn’t make them acceptable,” he said. “We all live in God’s world together.”