Jewish Leaders See Schoolyard Swastika Arrest As Opportunity for Restorative Justice

Police arrested a 12-year-old boy who they drew swastikas and anti-Semitic messages on schoolyard outside PS 139 in Rego Park last week. Photo by jim.henderson via Wikimedia Commons

Police arrested a 12-year-old boy who they drew swastikas and anti-Semitic messages on schoolyard outside PS 139 in Rego Park last week. Photo by jim.henderson via Wikimedia Commons

By David Brand

After the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force arrested a 12-year-old boy for allegedly drawing swastikas and anti-Semitic messages at a Rego Park schoolyard, Queens Jewish leaders said the episode could serve as an opportunity for restorative justice and anti-prejudice education.

“I’m deeply concerned about anti -Semitism and how it is being revealed in our communities, and I really see this as an opportunity for restorative justice,” said Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, co-chair of the Rabbinic Council of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and the rabbi at Malkhut, a progressive Jewish spiritual community in Western Queens. “It’s an opportunity for the community to work together to build trust in each other and our relationships.”

A school employee spotted dozens of swastikas and the phrase “Hail Hitler,” along with a hammer and sickle, scrawled in the concrete schoolyard of PS 139 while school was closed for winter break last week. Local leaders condemned the latest anti-Semitic act of vandalism or violence to strike a Queens community.

Once the NYPD announced that the suspect was a 12-year-old boy, several Jewish community members called for a comprehensive approach to addressing hate, rather than simply relying on courtroom punishment. Goldenberg said their response demonstrates the concept of “Teshuvah.”

“Teshuvah means how we handle when people have made bad decisions,” she said. “The suspect is a 12-year-old child and when I think about what to do, it’s Teshuvah: asking for and receiving forgiveness from the community.”

Goldenberg said she worries the child will miss out on the opportunity to understand how his actions hurt community members and how they fit into resurgent anti-Semitism around the world.

“I don’t feel like it keeps anyone safe to punish a child in this way,” she said. “It doesn’t address underlying issues that may have led him to do this act, writing the awful graffiti in chalk.”

Keren Soffer-Sharon, a JFREJ co-chair, echoed Goldenberg’s call for Teshuvah.

“What this kid needs is education, restorative justice and teshuvah,” Soffer-Sharon said. “We feel invested in our safety never coming at the expense of other communities. When all of us are safe, Jews are safe.”

A spokesperson for the Queens District Attorney’s office said the case would be handled in Family Court. The 112th Precinct declined to discuss the case.

Community Board 6 member Alexa Weitzman, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said the incident could spark anti-hatred education in schools and communities.

“This is an opportunity to have a more open conversation with everyone in the community about what these symbols represent during the appalling rise of anti-Semitism,” said Weitzman, who is a member of the Queens Democratic Party County Committee. “It seems like a really good opportunity for a more restorative justice approach.”

NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea announced the arrest in a tweet Wednesday.

“The NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force now have the suspect — a 12 year old male — in custody,” Shea tweeted. “No matter the face of hate, the NYPD, partnered with the community, has ZERO tolerance.”

In a follow up tweet, Shea said the boy was “processed as a juvenile and released to his family.”

Several individuals on social media took issue with the characterization of a preteen suspect as the “face of hate,” however.

“As a Jew, child of a survivor & resident of this community, I was horrified when I saw the graffiti - but this can NOT end w/ a 12 year old child in jail over chalk. We must address this as a community. Let’s explore restorative justice as an alternative,” Weitzman replied.