By David Brand
After a 12-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly drawing swastikas and anti-Semitic messages on a Rego Park schoolyard, Jewish community leaders saw an opportunity for education about hatred, intolerance and trauma.
On Thursday, they began the work of fostering inclusion and understanding with a workshop for kids enrolled in an afterschool program at Commonpoint, formerly known as the Central Queens Y, in Rego Park.
Deva Estin, a member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), helped organize and facilitate the workshop for the middle school-aged children. The workshop focused on the question of safety, love and protection and children drew pictures about those concepts, she said.
“These are big and hard questions for all of us: how do love and protect our immigrant neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, our Jewish neighbors,” said Estin, who lives in Jackson Heights and teaches elementary school in Sunnyside.
Police arrested a 12-year-old boy and later a 13-year-old for allegedly drawing the graffiti. NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea tweeted that the first suspect represented the “face of hate.”
JFREJ members and others in the community criticized that characterization. Estin said she her and her colleagues approached the issue of the arrest as an opportunity for restorative justice and understanding.
“Sometimes kids do stupid things and sometimes they can feel really big and triggering for people,” she said. “We think about ‘This is hurtful. This isn’t good,’ but for those of who have children — or adults too — in our lives, we understand that people make mistakes.”
JFREJ co-chair Keren Soffer-Sharon said children shared various examples of events that made them feel unsafe — many of which may have stayed a secret if not given space at the workshop.
“A car accident, a shooting, a school drill that made one kid worried,” Soffer-Sharon said. “Kids are attuned to things happening around them. A lot of things are happening that are making a lot of us feel unsafe.”
The facilitators and children also described the meaning and history of swastikas and other symbols of hate.
Yael Sacks, another JFREJ member and a third-grade teacher, said the organization would like to develop workshops for children to further the mission of undoing racism and promoting equity.
“Children are the mirror of society so if someone draws a swastika, we have to ask ourselves how we can change that,” Sacks said. “Punishing a child doesn’t make anyone safer. We need to build relationships, unlearn hate and practice restorative justice.”
“It’s really cool and inspiring to do this work,” she added. “We’re taking small steps toward the world we want to live in.”