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'Shocking:' Naples rabbi harassed outside school board meeting

Rabbi Adam Miller of Temple Shalom in Naples
Em Traylor Photography and Design
Rabbi Adam Miller of Temple Shalom in Naples

On the agenda of the May 3rd Collier County School Board meeting was discussion of the final candidates for Superintendent of Collier County schools. Rabbi Adam Miller of Temple Shalom in Naples was there to speak up during the public comment section, on behalf of concerned parents in the Jewish and broader communities. Here’s Rabbi Miller.

Rabbi Miller: One of the candidates, Mr. Van Zant, as part of his interview session, was talking about wanting to reach the, as he called them, “unchurched students” in our community and wanting to address issues of failing morality and wanting to teach Christian values. All of which was language that had a lot of the parents in the Jewish community very concerned, because they are worried that their children, their families, and those who are staff in our schools, are going to be feeling very isolated and alienated if the schools began actively teaching religion as part of what they were teaching to our children.

WGCU: And what was the atmosphere like in the meeting that night?

Rabbi Miller: To be honest, it was unlike anything that I had experienced up to that point in a public forum like that. A number of the speakers who were there, particularly many of those who were speaking in favor of the district engaging with Mr. Van Zant spoke in language that was extremely hateful in nature. They used a lot of language and terminology that was denigrating and dehumanizing of those who are identified as LGBTQ, or who support individuals who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. They talked about teachers as being indoctrination agents on behalf of some agenda that they don't agree with. They spoke hatefully of those who were not identified as Christian. One speaker got up and talked about Satan being among us. So that became something that ramped up more and more inside the meeting, that sense of hatred or fear of the “other,” of those who might be different than ourselves.

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WGCU: And then what happened when you left the meeting?

Rabbi Miller: As I left, I had two different interactions, which I think exemplify kind of where we are. One was in the lobby. I actually had a very respectful conversation with someone who didn't understand why Jewish parents and families were concerned about teaching Christian values in schools. She didn't understand why that would make students feel alienated. And she respectfully asked me to try to explain it to her. So we had a conversation in the lobby. And I would emphasize, it was a civil conversation. We might not have agreed, but at least we were able to talk in a respectful fashion. And when we ended, she thanked me for taking the time to talk to her.

Shortly thereafter, I stepped outside the building. And as I was walking towards my vehicle, a couple of men who had been talking in a group left their group and started to shout at me as I walked across the parking lot. They were shouting louder and louder and walking toward me in a way that was very aggressive, shouting things like, “Judaism is wrong, I'm on the path to sin.” They were talking negatively and denigratingly of Judaism and of me as a rabbi. And it was clear that these two individuals wanted a confrontation. And it was very alarming.

And I started to walk back towards the building instead of walking towards my car. They kept shouting at me for a while, but when they realized I was heading back inside, they peeled off and went to their vehicle. But I will say, the experience left me feeling quite shaken, in the parking lot and very concerned. We hear incidents of anti-semitism here and there but to have some people actively shouting at and aggressively coming at someone who was clearly identified as Jewish who was a rabbi, and to make it clear that you are not respectful of them, that you are hateful towards them, crossed over a boundary that I think shocked me and has shocked many in our community as I’ve shared the story afterward. I think for some it's become a wake-up call.

Sadly, we know that there have been many growing incidents of anti-semitism, of hate, of racism, of transphobia and homophobia happening in our community. But it needed something that people could say wow, that's even worse than I realized it was.

Rabbi Miller encourages people to speak out against hate wherever they may hear it, and says that community leaders are beginning to organize against the hate.

Charles Van Zant, the candidate who wanted to bring Christian dogma into public schools was not elected as superintendent. Leslie Ricciardelli, who had been interim superintendent, got the job.

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