Responding to Bias

Dear Members of CEHV,

Many of you are aware of an antisemitic incident that happened at Mother Earth’s Kingston store on March 11th, 2019.

This incident has been discussed on social media, reported in the Daily Freeman, and picked up by national and international news publications.

The incident as described was horrific. There is no place for antisemitism in our community.

The response, or lack of adequate response, from Mother Earth compelled me to initiate a meeting with the store’s owners, along with two clergy people with whom I serve on the Kingston Interfaith Council, Rev. Kendra VanHouten and Dr. Gregory Simpson. In our meeting, we shared our concerns and the concerns of over 40 faith leaders from the KIC. We expressed our profound upset and outrage, but we also felt that it was important to listen to the owners and hear their perspectives on that which had transpired, as well as learn how they had responded. We were joined by Neil Millens of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County.

The owners of Mother Earth responded to our request for a meeting immediately. They appeared genuinely concerned and interested in hearing our feedback. While we cannot hold the store’s owners responsible for that which an individual employee does, I believe that it is absolutely imperative to hold the owners of Mother Earth accountable for creating a safe and appropriate culture in their store, having healthy and appropriate guidelines and policies in place, and responding in a timely and appropriate way to any grievous incident like the one that ensued.

I/we expressed concern, upset, and outrage that an antisemitic comment of this nature occurred at their store.

I/we expressed concern about the environment and culture at the store that made it possible for this incident to occur.

I/we expressed profound distress concerning the handling of this incident in the aftermath.

I/we unequivocally expressed that we believe there must be a zero tolerance at Mother Earth, at any establishment in Kingston, and throughout our nation, for antisemitic, Islamophobic, racist, or homophobic hate speech or behavior of any kind.

The owners of Mother Earth articulated the internal steps that they had already taken, which they published on social media in the week following the incident. They had hired an HR firm and instituted a sensitivity training requirement for all of their employees.

While we were positively inclined, knowing that they had begun to create policies for sensitivity training, I/we were emphatic that to date, the steps they had taken and their communication to the public had been experienced by all of us as problematic, misguided, inadequate, and insufficient in response to this incident.

Tragically, divisive speech has dominated the fabric of our political landscape. When leaders refuse to speak out forcefully against hatred, bigotry, and racism, they empower, condone, and further such racism. When we are silent, we are complicit.

While there is always a place for forgiveness and reconciliation, the possibility of restoration and moving forward requires real accountability, communication, and the implementation of concrete changes.  In our meeting with the owners of Mother Earth, we explicitly enumerated a number of suggestions that we believe would help communicate an important message about the culture of the store, avoid a repeat of such an incident, and provide an avenue toward reconciliation and rebuilding of trust in the larger community of patrons of Mother Earth.

The suggestions included:

  1. Posting signage in and throughout their store, at the entrance, and specifically in employee workstations that state emphatically that Hate Has No Home in their institution.
  2. The owners of Mother Earth, together with their management team,  participating in the sensitive training process and actively communicating a zero tolerance for hate of any kind.
  3. Adopting and instituting Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies in establishing and protecting a safe culture and work environment in their stores.
  4. Accepting responsibility and accountability by communicating with the Kingston community and their patrons through advertisements in the local paper, news releases, letters to the editor, etc.
  5. Directing charitable giving to organizations in our community that promote tolerance and work to eliminate racism, bigotry, and hatred.
  6. Diversifying those in their employ.
  7. Apologizing to the young woman who absorbed the hateful rhetoric attack and did not feel protected at her work.
  8. Working more intelligently, more professionally, and more mindfully in creating and communicating a safe work environment and culture in their store.

The owners of Mother Earth expressed to us that they shared our values. We now await their concrete actions.

While we hope that steps are being taken internally at Mother Earth, and while we all would hope for a positive resolution and rebuilding that enables us to continue to patronize Mother Earth, I am pained to say that I have not heard of nor learned of any new steps that were communicated to the public at large.

While I have been a regular shopper at Mother Earth for the last 18 years, I am presently withholding my patronage.

Tolerance, diversity, and inclusion are essential for my patronage of a business. Unless and until the owners and managers of Mother Earth will absolutely and unequivocally create a safe environment for all of their employees and patrons  I will not be shopping at Mother Earth and I am urging members of my congregation to do the same.

CEHV is a congregation that is committed to living that which we profess to believe. We are committed to protecting tolerance, diversity, and inclusion in all of its forms. We are committed to speaking out against hatred, hate speech, and intolerance in all of its forms.

At this juncture, as we await concrete actions from Mother Earth, each individual and family must act according to their conscience. But I want to make my position as your Rabbi clear. I will not be shopping at Mother Earth.

I am hopeful that Mother Earth will step up and do the right thing in our community and that we as members of CEHV will have our confidence restored in our ability to patronize and support their business in the future.

In faith,

Rabbi Yael Romer, DD

Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley

243 Albany Avenue

Kingston, New York 12401