Around the Island

Finding a safe place to flourish


Last week, families across America gathered and gave thanks for their blessings. At the same time, many remembered in their prayers unthinkable numbers of victims and families touched by violence.

When word of the attack on Jews at worship in Pittsburgh emerged just weeks ago, the shock of the mass murder seemed a stark contrast to the quiet community where it occurred.

Numerous commentators spoke of having lived in Squirrel Hill, an almost idyllic neighborhood where one never questioned its being a safe place. One could draw parallels between Squirrel Hill — it literally was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood — and Shelter Island, which for many residents offers a safe harbor.

In the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue attack, the Reporter spoke with Lily Brett, an author who was profiled in the Island Bookshelf on October 25. Ms. Brett, a novelist, whose parents were both survivors of Auschwitz, has written extensively on persecution of Jews and refugees. She divides her time between Shelter Island and New York City.

To Ms. Brett, it seems that safe places, both here and in other countries, are diminishing, as hatred is flourishing. “Hate crimes are increasing at a rate that should shock all of us,” she said. “In the United States, hate crimes against Jews increased by 57 percent in 2017.”

The FBI released a report this week that showed hate crimes rising for the third year in a row. Nearly half of the hate crime victims were African-Americans, according to the report.

Of those targeted because of their religion, 58 percent were Jewish.

In Ms. Brett’s family, four uncles, three aunts, grandparents, cousins, nephews and nieces were murdered in the Holocaust. She was born in a refugee camp. The consequences of the hatred they endured in that time of terror continues to touch her life, she said.

“I have always believed that it’s as easy to bring out the best in people as it is to bring out the worst,” she said. “I now think I was wrong. It seems much easier to incite rage than it is to encourage empathy.”

Ms. Brett’s friend and colleague Kim Dempster joined the conversation. Ms. Dempster, who formerly directed TV movies, is now a fulltime screenwriter, living and working on Shelter Island. The discussion deepened into a contemplation of what each individual could do to make hate crimes less likely, here or anywhere.

“We have to believe we can beat this,” she said.

“I’m very worried about our immigrant population,” Ms. Dempster added “The only way I can fight against the tide of hate is with action and love.”

She recently worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to assist a large Hispanic community in Dodge City, Kansas where the county clerk had moved the single polling place outside city limits. Ms. Dempster mounted a fundraising campaign to provide transportation for those who could not otherwise get to the polls.

“I need to feel I’m doing something positive,” she said.

She and Ms. Brett cited an article posted by a Jewish nurse who cared for the synagogue shooter at the hospital in Pittsburgh. Ari Mahler wrote that he ran into the suspect’s room to help him, even as the man yelled “Death to all Jews” when he was wheeled into the emergency room.

The suspect thanked the nurse for caring for him as he would any patient. Mr. Mahler never told him that he was Jewish, or that an hour earlier he’d worried that his own parents might be among the victims.

“Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope,” Mr. Mahler wrote. “It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here.”

“The safest place for all of us is in the hearts of those who love you,” said Ms. Brett. “It’s in communities who care about each other and share a compassion for all people regardless of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs or their sexual orientation.”