By Larry Gordon
The young woman approached the podium last week in Rockville Centre, Long Island with a look of assured confidence. She was going to address the village board including Mayor Francis Murray about a concern of hers, a matter that just recently came to her attention almost accidently.
She expressed her concern and was beseeching the town board to take action and do something about a matter that had to be dealt with quickly and expeditiously because otherwise it would just be too late to stop.
You see, she said, there were signs that Orthodox Jews were moving into her community.
She said calmly and nonchalantly that up until twenty years ago she had lived in the Five Towns just a few miles away from Rockville Centre. She spoke about her experience as a resident of the Five Towns and the fact that as observant Jews moved in naturally more shuls opened to accommodate the religious needs of the growing religious population.
“They said it couldn’t happen here,” she said about the sentiment that residents of the Five Towns expressed two decades earlier, and she wanted it known that it did happen there and that it could happen in her new adopted home in Rockville Centre.
The woman, whose name is posted on the Village of Rockville Centre website so it is a matter of public record, said that she is concerned that Rockville Centre will experience a change or a shift in population just like the Five Towns did 20 years ago.
At this point what apparently troubles her is that she drove by a home in the village and noticed a menorah that she estimated to be about eight feet high on the front lawn. The woman’s name is Michelle Zangari and she explains on the video of the meeting that since she lived in the Five Towns for many years prior to moving to Rockville Centre she intimates and suggests she knows the Orthodox Jewish pattern of life and movement and she senses it seems that Rockville Centre is in our new communal scope.
Ms. Zangari says that a menorah on a front lawn is a sign or a signal that the plan is to open a shul over the near term at that location. She indicated that as a former resident of the Five Towns, she knows this to be true.
Rabbi Mendel Gurkov is the Chabad rabbi who took up residence in Rockville Centre about six months ago. He submitted an application for a permit to erect a menorah in the village to celebrate and publicize the Chanukah miracles and observances, but that permission was denied by the village. So he put the menorah up on his own property and let it remain and to this point there has been no communication with him asking that the menorah be taken down.
Over nearly three decades here in the Five Towns, yes there has been the addition of a number of shuls to accommodate the demographic shift in the community. I do not recall, however, a menorah being necessarily erected on a property as a signal that a shul is about to open.
The village petitioner further stated that in her former community there is now a shul or house of prayer on every block, an assertion that is completely erroneous.
Ms. Zangari in her remarks said that she “was petitioning the board asking for an amendment to the existing use code, which would prohibit houses of worship in residential zones.” She asked that those already in existence in Rockville Centre be allowed to remain. There is a Reform temple and a Conservative congregation already in the village, so the objective at this stage seems to be to legislate a halt to an Orthodox Jewish shul or entity from opening.
As you can surmise, this type of rhetoric is her right to express but is both divisive and offends people, Jews and non-Jews, religiously observant and nonobservant. What is most startling is that she must have thought and believed that this was the right thing to do. I’m sure that today she thinks otherwise.
While some of the tens of thousands of people who viewed the video of the April 4 meeting thought that it was mostly mindless, most of those who I spoke to were more surprised and taken aback by the silence of the board members who listened to her carefully prepared diatribe against Orthodox Jews.
The reaction across the board from elected officials was unanimous; this type of expression and the board’s non-reaction requires complete and uncompromising condemnation. New York State Governor Kathy Hochul issued the following statement: “Everyone is welcome in New York. The despicable and anti-Semitic rhetoric used at the Rockville Centre Board of Trustees meeting has no place in our state. We must root out hate wherever it rears its ugly head.”
Congressman Lee Zeldin, a Republican hopeful for governor in the November election, said, “The recent comments at a Rockville Centre Village board meeting were vile, anti-Semitic, and against all the American pro religious freedom values we all hold deeply. Anti-Semitism must be identified, confronted, and crushed in all forms. It should have no home anywhere in our nation.”
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said in a statement: “Freedom to practice religion and freedom to live where one chooses are rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The remarks made by a resident at a Rockville Centre Village board meeting were offensive and un-American. It is the duty of responsive public officials to condemn this type of anti-Semitic hate speech that was in evidence at the meeting. I am hopeful that the members of the board will also respond forcefully in this matter.”
And Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said on Twitter: “The anti-Semitic rhetoric and tropes used by a speaker at a recent Rockville Centre Village board meeting are offensive and disturbing. We must never stop working to root out anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate. Anti-Semitism has no place in America.”
Similar statements were also issued by Long Island Congressional Representatives Tom Suozzi and Kathleen Rice.
I sent an e-mail to Michelle Zangari asking to speak with her so that I could better understand and communicate her concerns that may have been misunderstood. But there was no response from her, and I understand if she really has nothing to say. I don’t believe that she is evil or wanted to offend anyone. She just didn’t realize what she was saying and in a small-minded way she believed that it is okay to denigrate and disparage Orthodox Jews.
If she didn’t realize what she was saying or she thought that it was an okay thing to do because she may have heard it somewhere before, hopefully she now understands that this was wrong and though she may not have realized it, it was hateful.
This week we are celebrating the season of our redemption as we commemorate the exodus from Egypt 3,334 years ago. This is an auspicious time to be cognizant of the fact that there is no redemption unless it is preceded by oppression. The events in Rockville Centre last week were a reminder that as Jews we are still in galus, in exile, and that the true and ultimate redemption is long overdue.
There’s a lot more taking place on multiple levels that we will have the opportunity to report on after yom tov. For now, Ms. Zangari should publicly apologize in the same forum that she made the original hurtful and damaging remarks. And the village board, led by Mayor Murray, should beg for forgiveness for remaining silent when they should have spoken up.
Here’s an update on the story as we go to press. On Monday, Rabbi Gurkow received a written apology from Ms. Zangari for her insensitive remarks at last week’s trustee meeting. On Tuesday morning, the rabbi met with the village mayor, Francis Murray, and according to those who attended or spoke to those who attended, the meeting was cordial and respectful.
The mayor indicated that the village will be issuing a letter this week that will hopefully set things straight. On Monday, the village of Rockville Centre issued a one paragraph statement that was not an apology and that created more confusion than anything else. At no point has anyone yet apologized on behalf of the village for sitting silent as clear anti-Orthodox Jewish tropes were spewed out.
For his part Rabbi Gurkow says that he does not want a confrontation but prefers that there be a meeting of the minds that results in a peaceful and workable understanding. Stay tuned.
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