(JTA) — Rabbi Adam Miller was exiting a school board meeting in his city of Naples, Florida, when two men approached him in the parking lot.
“Your prophet is not real, and Judaism is not a real religion,” they yelled at him, according to the subsequent police report. The rabbi recounted other colorful epithets, too: “Judaism is wrong.” “You’re on the path to sin.”
The encounter startled Miller, the senior rabbi of Temple Shalom since 2010. He knew that local students had experienced antisemitism at school and was aware that his city had a checkered past when it came to including Jews — but he had never before been accosted in this way.
“I was still wearing my kippah. I was clearly identified as the rabbi,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about the incident, which took place in early May. “Their tone was very hateful and angry, and they would not stop following me.”
Miller returned to the building to wait the men out. But he was shaken: They had been wearing badges supporting a viable candidate for district superintendent who was standing for election that evening — a man who had, during an interview for the position, argued that “unchurched, uncultured Americans” were a cause of the country’s “moral decline.”
Miller had come to the meeting that night because he was concerned about that candidate, Charles Van Zant, Jr., and felt the need to speak out against him. Van Zant is a military veteran who had been the superintendent of another district for four years until he was voted out in 2016. In his application for the post in Naples, he had said he was “encouraged to see traditional and conservative values returning to Florida Schools,” and during the meeting, his supporters echoed that ambition.
“We need to teach them Christian moral values,” one Van Zant supporter said during his public comment period, referring to schoolchildren. “I know that’s not a popular opinion.”
Van Zant would narrowly fall short in his bid to lead the district, losing out by a single board member’s vote. Yet the fact that he nearly won left local Jews rattled. That close result, coupled with the harassment of Miller, offered a stark illustration of how a rising tide of conservative activism in Florida politics — and surrounding local school boards across the country — can stoke antisemitism or otherwise come at the cost of Jews.
Reflecting on that night, Miller said he feared his city was falling prey to “this bigger culture that’s been allowed to exist, of hate towards the other, of letting fear of things that we don’t know or don’t understand drive us to be hateful.”
“I’ve really come to believe that silence is oxygen for hate,” he said. “Not speaking out, not saying something, is just letting it get bigger and more out of control.”
The dynamic present in Naples, a city of about 20,000 on the Gulf Coast, has been pronounced across Florida, where Republican lawmakers have empowered the activism of conservative parents. Recently the state rejected Holocaust education textbooks in part because they contained “social justice” themes, and districts in the state have, on parents’ request, removed books about Anne Frank, queer Jewish families and other topics related to Jews and the Holocaust.
“I think many of the people that were in that room would see themselves as good Christians,” said Jeffrey Feld, executive director of the local Jewish federation, who likewise came to the school board meeting to protest Van Zant. “On the other hand, there are certain groups they don’t want to be inclusive of. They clearly do not want to include, for instance, the LGBTQ community. There were different statements that were made that way.”
Feld added, “So yes, I think it is a great concern for all of us to have to deal with. And it’s something that we look at every single day.”
Local Jews say Naples has a history of antisemitism, and trouble started brewing at the Collier County school board during its election last year. Three of the five seats were up for grabs, and all went to conservatives. Two of those new board members seemed to hold, or associate with people who held, antisemitic views.
One, Jerry Rutherford, identifies as a Christian but attends a Messianic congregation — part of a movement that calls itself Jewish but believes in the divinity of Jesus and often has ties with Christian organizations. Messianic Judaism is roundly considered non-Jewish by actual Jewish groups, and its emphasis on proselytizing to Jews is seen as antisemitic.
Rutherford is a former chairman of the local Christian Coalition and founder of a group that distributes free Christian Bibles to high school students, which he says is “in honor of Religious Freedom Day.” He told JTA he’s a proponent of school prayer and an increased focus on religion in the classroom, including putting replicas of the Ten Commandments in schools — measures many Jewish groups have long opposed.
Rutherford was the board member who prompted Van Zant’s “unchurched” comment, by asking him during the candidate interview process in April to diagnose “the reason for the moral decline in our country and in our schools.”
Another new school board member, Tim Moshier, was elected after one of his campaign volunteers was revealed to have posted antisemitic videos to social media — including TikTok videos about Jews “using pornography as mind control” — and who also declared herself an antisemite on the platform, according to an article in the Naples Daily News. The volunteer also maintained an active account on Gab, a social network for far-right extremists, which she frequently used to post antisemitic messages about Jews and Israel.
Confronted with the videos by a reporter for the Naples Daily News, Moshier initially said he didn’t have a problem with them and did not condemn antisemitism. (According to the article, his campaign’s official Instagram account had responded to a message from a Jewish TikTok user by stating, “We recommend that you do some research into the topic as she is not wrong and we will not be reconsidering her position for anyone else.”) Days later, Moshier did condemn both the videos and antisemitism “in the strongest terms,” saying he was not aware of the volunteer’s social media history.
The makeup of the new school board alarmed Feld, the Jewish federation executive who has been in his position for nearly a decade. He remains haunted by an antisemitic event that took place years before he even arrived in Naples: a “Kick a Jew Day” that local public school students had staged in 2009.
The stunt resulted in the suspension of several students as well as critical news coverage from around the world. As part of its response, the federation launched a “Stand Up For Justice Committee” that gives out annual awards to people fighting hate in the local community. Recipients have frequently included teachers and other employees of the local school district; four Collier County teachers were awarded the prize this year.
But Feld said it’s unclear whether the federation’s awards and other anti-hate efforts had changed the culture in local schools. He and Miller both said Jewish students had recently experienced incidents of antisemitic bullying at school. One reported a classmate who had showed up to school dressed as Adolf Hitler; another student superimposed a Jewish student’s face onto a concentration camp uniform and sent the image to their entire class.
Miller declined to share photographs of the alleged incidents, saying the students had asked not to share any further information about what had happened. Asked about the allegations, a spokesperson for the school district said that federal law prevents them from commenting on student discipline matters.
Feld said the recent manifestations of antisemitism are continuing a long local tradition of anti-Jewish bigotry. Jews who came to Naples up until recent decades, he said, “very definitely got the impression that it was not a friendly community to the Jewish community.” Today the Jewish Federation of Greater Naples serves around 10,000 Jews in the county, and the area has Conservative, Reform and Chabad congregations — though its Jewish infrastructure is far less robust than that of the Miami area, about 100 miles due east.
At the recent school board meeting he attended with Miller, Feld identified himself to the board as the Jewish federation president and made the case for Van Zant’s opponent as the better option for the Jewish community, saying she held the values of “sensitivity, civility, respect and inclusivity.” Those values were particularly important, he said, in light of the harmful legacy of “Kick a Jew Day.”
“That day spoke to antisemitism and hate,” Feld said. “In our community, antisemitism continues to grow. Hate continues to grow.”
Ultimately, Van Zant lost his election for superintendent 3-2 to the Jewish community’s preferred candidate, a longtime district administrator widely liked by her peers. Van Zant’s two votes came from Rutherford and Moshier.
Reflecting on the vote and its aftermath, Rutherford said the news of what had happened to the rabbi “saddens me, because I attend a Messianic Jewish synagogue. And actually, I blow the shofar at the synagogue.”
At the same time, he did not think that Van Zant’s comment about “unchurched” Americans indicated a threat to Jews. “I think he understands our background, as far as our Biblical background,” Rutherford told JTA. “He would not be opposed to anything Jewish.”
Rutherford seemed surprised to hear that his plan to distribute Bibles to students could be hostile to Jews.
“Well, what if we just gave out the Torah itself? Would that be satisfactory?” he said. Rutherford added he had not yet spoken to members of the local Jewish community about these matters but that he would reach out to the federation to have a conversation. (Weeks after this interview, Feld told JTA he had yet to hear from Rutherford.)
Moshier did not respond to multiple JTA requests for comment, both directed to him and to a spokesperson for the school board. But he does have at least one defender — Rutherford, who said that he did not believe Moshier was antisemitic, “because his wife is Jewish.”
Moshier’s campaign manager, Rutherford said, has “a free right to speak their mind. But that doesn’t mean [Moshier is] in agreement with it.”
A spokesperson for the Collier County school district declined to comment on the harassment of Miller, saying that the district does not comment on interactions between private citizens, adding that the district has a “zero tolerance” policy for “discriminatory and harassing misconduct by staff.”
In addressing the incident, Miller hopes law enforcement might be able to make use of a new law combating “ethnic intimidation” that was recently signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, which makes it a felony to spread antisemitic messages on private property. But other police departments in the state have so far failed to make use of the new statute, and a JTA public records request for the police incident report showed that as of about a month after the altercation, no charges have been filed.
But Miller doesn’t want to focus on what happened to him. His primary worry, he said, is about the increasingly uncertain environment that Naples’ Jewish community seems to find itself in.
“There’s been a rising concern,” he said. “We keep seeing these things, and nothing’s really being addressed.”
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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