Oceanside rabbi supports law that would teach hate symbols to students

Mike Smollins for LI Herald

August 23, 2019

Originally published in Long Island Herald on August 22, 2019.

Lawmakers sponsor bill focused on intolerance

In response to several instances of hate crimes and anti-Semitism in the U.S., New York lawmakers recently announced legislation aimed at ensuring that “students are taught the hateful intolerance of the swastika and noose” and other symbols of hatred in order to educate them about the history of those symbols.

Rabbi Levi Gurkov, of the Chabad of Oceanside, said he supported the legislation, but believed it should go further than teaching students about hate.

“I would hope that the legislation itself would put a lot of emphasis on the sanctity of the human being,” Gurkov said. “Not just focusing on hate symbols, but they should emphasize the educational part of it: that every human being has a sanctity and God-given right to enjoy life and freedom.”

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas and State Assemblyman Charles Lavine announced the bill on Aug. 13. Kaminsky, Lavine, Sens. Kevin Thomas, Shelley Mayer and Anna Kaplan and Assemblywoman Judy Griffin sponsored it.

The law would require students in grades six through 12 to be taught about hate and intolerance. It would also direct the state education commissioner and the Board of Regents to design curricula for schools districts to implement.

Gurkov said that the Chabad teaches children at a young age about hate, and couples the history of anti-Semitism with the positives life and religion can offer.

“It’s an absolute must to teach children when they’re young to treat every individual well and care for every individual,” he said. “It starts at an early age in the home, and the educational system should start as early as possible.”

Calls to spiritual leaders at Temple Avodah, in Oceanside, and the South Shore Jewish Center, in Island Park, were not returned at press time. Requests for comment from Ocean-side and Island Park school administrators also were not returned.

Kaminsky said that recent instances of anti-Semitism spurred the legislation. “Incidents of hatred and anti-Semitism have reared their ugly heads throughout our nation and across Nassau County,” he said. “It’s imperative that we educate our children on the repugnant meanings behind the swastika and noose as symbols of bigotry and intolerance.”

Singas said that the symbols “have been used to intimidate and threaten our neighbors and have no place in our communities,” and called education “a critical component” in preventing hate crimes in the future.

The legislation comes after seven 10-inch swastikas were found drawn in purple marker at a pavilion in Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in Oyster Bay earlier this month. County Executive Laura Curran derided those who vandalized the area to spread messages of hate.

“I am appalled at the symbols of hate recently found in Oyster Bay,” she said in a statement. “This type of vandalism is meant to intimidate and divide.”

Curran added that she was in favor of the legislation to teach the hate symbols and the meanings behind them to schoolchildren, noting that it would help them “fully understand the damage and repercussions of such heinous acts,” while providing the students with the knowledge of the symbols’ “horrific history.”

The bill will be voted on when the Legislature is back in session in January, and would go into effect on Sept. 1, 2020, if signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Gurkov said that in addition to educating students, he would like to see teachers and administrators institute a mandatory moment of silence each day in the classroom. “[Students] should reflect on their existence as a mission,” he said. “Every person has a value and a mission to contribute to the world, and every morning they should have a moment of reflection to realize what their purpose is.”