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A Grassroots Success Story – How A Small Group of Atlanta Women Stood Up To Anti-Semitism

On the morning of Feb. 21, a 46-year-old wife and mother in suburban Atlanta awoke and decided that she could not stay silent amid a surge the recent in anti-Semitic activity, from bomb threats, toppled gravestones and synagogue vandalism to abhorrent speech online and on campus.

By the morning of March 30, Lauren Menis – who had no experience in the organized Jewish world – was delivering the opening remarks to an invitation-only meeting convened by the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism (AIAAS), an organization that did not exist until she created it five weeks earlier.

Gathering representatives of more than 150 organizations – two-thirds of them from the Jewish community, including regional offices of long-established national groups – usually would be the work of professionals.

Not in Atlanta, not since the day Menis texted 14 women whose children also attend the Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, affiliated with Reform Judaism, where her son and daughter are students.

“I have to do something about anti-Semitism. Who’s in?” was the message.

The women behind the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism – and it is all-women, numbering about 75, a mix of stay-at-home and work-from-home mothers and others working full-time outside their homes – are examples of a post-election phenomenon: women (and men), some with little or no history of activism, taking up various causes, political and otherwise.

AIAAS maintains a non-partisan stance and, indeed, those attending the meeting were of various political stripes. But elsewhere in the Atlanta area, the newly active fill the ranks working on behalf of a Jewish Democratic congressional candidate seeking to flip a district long-held by Republicans in an April primary.

In cities as diverse as Chicago, St. Louis and region near Los Angles, other grassroots groups have emerged in response to the recent surge in episodes of anti-Semitism and racial bias.

These local efforts are in addition to the millions who marched in Washington, D.C. and across the country the day after the inauguration, or who joined airport protests against the administration’s attempts to restrict travel from several predominantly Muslim nations. On a smaller scale, local Jewish groups and individuals who have banded together to welcome Syrian immigrants into new homes in varying ways are also taking their first steps in the world of activism.

Menis’ own efforts have attracted support beyond the local Jewish community.

Soumaya Khalifa, founder and executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, said the two-hour plus meeting, “I am so proud of the organizers, who thought of it, who turned it around, from an idea to this, in such a short time. It was so professionally done,” said.

“Anti-Semitism is a symptom of hate, and people who are anti-Semitic also hate other groups, explained Khalifa. “By addressing anti-Semitism we will address, as a community, all other kinds of hate.”

The arrest in Israel of an American-Israeli teenager in connection with the bulk of some 165 bomb threats to Jewish institutions in the United States did not lessen the women’s resolve.

“We were asked if this changed our meeting or even negated the need for it. And to this, I say a resounding no,” Menis told the 250 people gathered at Temple Emanu-el in Sandy Springs, Georgia, where she is a member.

Zubair Zafar, executive director of the Roswell Community Masjid and Laila E. Dreidame, director of philanthropy of the American Civil Liberties Union, were among those drawn to AIAAS’s community-wide meeting.

In the Atlanta area, bomb threats were made by telephone and email against the Marcus Jewish Community Center and called into another day school, the Atlanta Jewish Academy, and the Southeast region office of the Anti-Defamation League.

Menis initially was unfamiliar with the scope of communal organizations in the Atlanta area, home to an estimated 120,000 Jews. She and the women who rallied to her side contacted not only congregations, schools and Jewish agencies large and small, but also invited representatives from local governments, law enforcement, prominent businesses, civic organizations, and Christian and Muslim groups. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee lent added credibility by signing on as co-sponsors.

“Anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem; it is an American problem. Whenever people are victimized because of their faith or ethnicity, we need to denounce them in partnership,” Dov Wilker, Regional Director of AJC Atlanta, told a diverse audience.

Menis acknowledges that since emigrating at age 9 with her family from South Africa, she has not suffered directly from anti-Semitism. It was the thought of her 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter growing up in an environment where anti-Semitism was acceptable that propelled her. “This is not a world I want my children to grow up in,” she said.

Though a stay-at-home mom now, Menis was not a babe in the woods in her understanding of public relations, media and community affairs. She worked for a decade as a producer at CNN (disclosure: the author worked at CNN for many years) but left that job to raise her children. Her husband, Michael, is an executive with a hotel group. She wrote a parenting blog for a community newspaper until her children said they no longer wanted to be fodder for public consumption.

In advance of the meeting, Menis joked that AIAAS was consuming her waking hours, cutting into her sleep and that her housework routine was a casualty. Her laptop was rarely more than an arm’s length away and if she wasn’t on the phone she was in a meeting. But the 3.30 p.m. pickup at school still had to be made and if calls needed to be returned while attending a track meet, so be it.

Menis came to appreciate that each of the women who answered her call that day in February, most of whom she did not know well before, had skills that supported building AIAAS and planning the meeting. “The level of detail my co-founders are putting into this meeting is awe-inspiring,” she said as the meeting date neared. “We have a training manual for volunteers. We have lists of every single item we may need. We have detailed scenarios of what to do if a million things occur.”

Seated at round tables, participants – many who whom were being introduced to people and organizations they might otherwise not encounter – were tasked to identify initiatives that had worked previously or should be considered in combatting anti-Semitism.

“Today was a tremendous display of Atlanta addressing an ancient problem together. Although it is not an issue that can be resolved in two hours, I think it’s important that at some point we look at the history and causes that make people fear and hate Jews,” said Rebecca Stapel-Wax, director of SOJOURN (the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity), which provides resources and support for the LGBTQ community.

“I was particularly excited that so many people expressed concern that Georgia does not have a state hate crime law. If this group can galvanize around this issue and create a groundswell of grassroots support for Georgia to pass hate crime legislation, that would be a tangible and concrete effort that could have a wide impact not just for the Jewish community but for all groups targeted by hate,” said Shelley Rose, Interim Regional Director for the ADL.

In the five weeks between conceiving AIAAS and the meeting, Menis had little time to consider what comes next and what role her new coalition may play in the Jewish community and even beyond, supporting others, such as the Muslim community, which has been the targets of threats and violence.

Menis and her cohorts will review the ideas recorded by note-takers at each table. “The next step is to go smaller, with community initiatives,” she said. She ultimately hopes to partner with the myriad of organizations that turned out for the meeting.

AIAAS co-founder Danielle Cohen – who “complements my impulsivity with extreme organization,” Menis said – delivered the closing remarks. Cohen’s voice broke as she told how her 14-year-old daughter, alarmed by the bomb threats and the images of toppled Jewish gravestones, feared that another Holocaust was possible. “This was an opportunity to truly be the change I want to see in the world,” Cohen said.

In keeping with her changed life, an hour after the event that culminated five weeks of intensive work, Menis was off to the “chocolate seder” at her children’s school.

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