February 29, 2024

A Community’s Defining Moment

Ilyse Muser Shainbrown Director of Holocaust Education

On most days since October 7, I wake up and wait with bated breath for the barrage of phone calls, emails, texts, and WhatsApp posts that inevitably flood my inboxes. They have ranged from “From the River to the Sea” school walkouts to declined birthday invitations because the child is a Jew.  

Being a Jew in America post October 7 has come with a myriad of issues and emotions. As a lifelong student of the Holocaust and antisemitism, as well as a devoted member of the Jewish community and a Zionist who believes in peace for all people in Israel and the Middle East, I have worked tirelessly, both professionally and personally, to help my family, friends, and community members navigate this new reality. It has not always been a simple path. At times I have felt sad, frustrated, and angry.  

Going into the Livingston Board of Education meeting on Tuesday evening, I felt more trepidation than normal. At this meeting, Livingston’s superintendent, Dr. Matt Block, was set to present on the Federation mission to Israel that I had led for educators and legislators in January. In addition, the following evening, a panel of October 7 survivors were scheduled to speak at an optional program for Livingston High School students. Calls were out on several pro-Palestinian sites to come and protest both Dr Block’s remarks and the program planned for the students. To counteract that, a flood of communications was sent to the Jewish community of Livingston to show up in support of the district’s plans.  

Besides my professional role in the community, I am a lifelong resident of Livingston.  A graduate of Livingston Public Schools and a parent of three students in the district, with one set to graduate in a few short months. I served for the past nine years on the district Parent-Teacher Council, culminating with a term as the organization’s president. I have sat in countless Board of Education meetings in nearly empty rooms with the administration for years, so when the meeting was changed to a larger space, and letters from every local synagogue were sent out urging attendance, I knew that this night was going to be an out-of-the-norm event for the Livingston School District.     

And so, with much apprehension, in the pouring rain, I approached the same middle school doors that I had walked through every day as a student, as have all my sons. I was amazed by what I was met with. In vast numbers, the Jewish community came out to listen and speak thoughtfully and coherently of their support for Dr. Block, the administration, and for the optional student program. There were hundreds in the room and at least 100 more were turned away because they were at capacity. I understand that even more were watching the livestream. This was truly a defining moment for a community that used to be a majority Jewish, but the numbers are slowly shrinking.  

Dr. Block’s presentation on the Federation trip to Israel was well thought out and meaningful. Then came the opportunity for public comment. Speaker after speaker addressed the importance of students learning through active dialogue and conversation and hearing from primary sources about what transpired on October 7. Many speakers also talked about their hopes for peace in the region and for Israelis to be able to live peacefully alongside their Palestinian neighbors.   

In the room that night there were Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews. There were Jewish day school parents supporting the parents of public-school students. There were children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, adults who had grown up in the former Soviet Union, immigrants who had been driven out of Arab countries, all living side by side in a Jewish community in suburban New Jersey. Everyone was thoughtful, respectful, and honest in their desire for the students to have this unique opportunity. It truly was a remarkable night.  

During a time when it’s not so easy to be a Jew, there was so much community and togetherness felt in that room, and I was so proud to be looking at it as both a Jewish communal professional and a resident.  

There were a few who spoke in opposition to the program, though most of them admitted that they were not Livingston residents. Despite what you might read or hear from other news sources, this was a peaceful meeting. It was an evening, in a sea of dark evenings, that I went to bed with a smile on my face, knowing that my small town was a part of something tremendous.   

Thankfully, the event for teens the following night went off without a hitch. Our Federation delegation of Israelis spoke to an auditorium full of hundreds of students and parents who were eager to hear their personal stories of survival We all left the evening knowing that it was our collective responsibility to continue to share their stories.  

Photo credit from Livingston Board of Education meeting above: Dr. Shawn Klein