BAR HARBOR — The swastika painted in the road outside Temple Beth Israel in Bangor last week, allegedly by a group of teenage boys, is deeply saddening: for Rabbi Bill Siemers and his congregation and more broadly for Jews in Bangor and across Maine.

The spray painting of the swastika was cowardly and disgusting. For many Jews and people of other religions and faiths, the swastika creates fear and worry. Will this escalate?

Within two weeks someone has placed a noose over a telephone line in Deer Isle, and now others have painted a swastika in front of a synagogue.

We may not be able to stop the next person who tries to frighten and degrade minority communities through the use of symbols that resonate of violence and bigotry. But we have the power of our voices to speak up.

We can talk about the swastika and what it symbolizes with our families and with our friends. We can to reach out to the congregation at Beth Israel: a short letter to the synagogue. We can speak up in the workplace when colleagues use degrading stereotypes or jokes about minorities.

Twenty-eight years ago my family was living in Litchfield. Someone spray painted on our picket fence the words, “(Expletive) you Jews.” The Kennebec Journal covered the story the next day. I was worried, worried that no one would care. That people would ignore what had happened to my family.


The phone rang in the early evening. A man introduced himself. He had just moved to Litchfield. He said, “I would like to come and repaint your fence.”

I think about that man from time to time. He wanted to repaint my family’s fence. More importantly, he mended my heart.

Speaking to people and communities who have been targeted with bias helps the process of healing.

For many years I have been conducting focus groups in schools in Maine, across the country and in English language schools in Eastern Europe and in Northern Ireland. I do this to learn the kinds of bias that schools and communities are facing. I then develop programs to provide students and faculty with the skills and the motivation to speak up when degrading language is used in their presence.

Anti-Semitism is widespread in all of these places, including Maine. Students tell “jokes” about the Holocaust. Students use degrading stereotypes about Jews. Students throw coins in front of Jewish students. Some students say, “Hitler was right.” Students use the Nazi salute. Students draw swastikas.

It is only a relatively small number of students who say these words and do these actions. But many students hear and see them. Too many remain quiet. But some students speak up to say that racism, sexism, anti-Muslim bias, ugly comments about LGBTQ people, negative comments about students with disabilities and anti-Semitic comments have no place in their schools. Those students are my heroes. They have courage and a deep reservoir of empathy.

Racism and anti-Semitism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ bias will not end in our schools and our communities without more of us speaking up.

Empathy and courage and the use of our voices can drown out the purveyors of hate and division.

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