Northern California native Deborah Lauter stood in a Holocaust museum among students of color from Brooklyn, explaining why the museum is relevant to the current rise in anti-Semitism in their New York City borough.
“The Holocaust didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Lauter told the students earlier this month. “It started with egg throwing. It started with prejudice, discrimination. And what you’re going to see today is a genocide.”
In the months before the museum tour, New York had been plagued by a rise in attacks on Jews, from egg throwing to vandalism to harassment to assault.
In September, following a string of such attacks, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Lauter as the first executive director of the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes.
The 1978 UC Berkeley graduate came to the job following 18 years with the Anti-Defamation League, seven years as the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s community relations director and a year as the executive director of a pro-Israel political action committee, San Franciscans for Good Government.
Part of her new job is to sound the alarm about anti-Semitism in America’s largest, and most Jewish, city. But at the same time, Lauter wants to dial down the panic. Yes, it’s rising. And yes, it’s bad. But is it Germany in 1933?
Not even close, Lauter said.
“What took me aback over these four months is the level of fear — I get it — but the level of rhetoric in framing what’s happening as a pogrom or Holocaust analogies,” she said. “What we’ve seen is not state-sponsored anti-Semitism. Elected officials, law enforcement, the government, have absolutely been there for the community.”
The Holocaust didn’t happen in a vacuum.
So if it isn’t the Holocaust — even if it’s redolent of the run-up to it — what is it? Why is it happening? And what can stop it?
Those are questions that Jews in New York have been asking for months, especially as the attacks escalated from harassment to a deadly shooting in Jersey City across the river and a stabbing in upstate Monsey. And they are questions that Lauter must answer to succeed in her post.
Four months into the job, Lauter is focusing on the long game. While she supports the increased patrols by police and better hate-crime reporting, her initiatives are centered on education and community relations. Preventing anti-Semitism in New York, she said, is going to require steps that could take years to come to fruition.
“The reactive piece is important,” she said. “But for me the preventative measures, through community relations and education, are really going to, I believe, change the tenor of the conversation.”
Those who have met with Lauter praise her projects and eagerness. Rabbi David Niederman, a leader in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, called Lauter “a real pro” whose ADL experience equips her to tackle the issue.
Other critics wonder whether an office with a budget of $1.7 million and a total staff of seven can make tangible progress. (Some programs Lauter is overseeing are funded with additional support from the city.)
“I don’t think she has the level of staff to deal with the demand of the issues we are facing, but so far so good,” said Pastor Gil Monrose, who does religious outreach for Brooklyn’s borough president. “They have been working diligently and working with partners. She needs more staff, and the staff that she has now is inadequate to take on the level of response that is needed in the city.”
Lauter says she has had 50 meetings with community stakeholders in Brooklyn and elsewhere since September, part of an effort to show the city’s commitment to tackling the problem. Her passion is directed largely at education and community dialogue. One project she stressed was the formation of neighborhood safety coalitions, groups of religious leaders and local activists in the diverse and heavily Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park.
Lauter’s office is choosing coalition members based, in part, on past experience working with city government, and they are expected to begin meeting in February. After that, she expects the coalitions to transform from a top-down initiative to a grassroots-led salve for neighborhood tensions. The office coordinates with 16 city agencies — from the police to mental health professionals — to work together on youth education, victim support and other issues.
Another project, which received $1 million from the city, provides funding to 16 nonprofits to support various initiatives to prevent hate violence. Three of the groups are Jewish — the ADL, Niederman’s organization and the Brooklyn Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights. Lauter also is working on creating an anti-bias curriculum for schools to be launched in the next academic year.
“We’re required to take math, we’re required to take English, we’re required to take science, but nobody requires us to learn respect,” Lauter recalled a student telling her on a recent visit to a Williamsburg school. “Kids are asking for this. They want guidance, and I think there’s a willingness on educators’ part.”
While attending UC Berkeley, Lauter met her future husband, Jonathan Lauter, whose parents were fixtures in the Bay Area Jewish community for decades, having led local chapters of AIPAC and other institutions.
“Naomi was an incredible woman,” she recalled, “and to have her as a mother-in-law, to sit at her knee and learn about fundamentals of community relations and community building had a profound impact.”
After practicing law in San Francisco from 1982 to 1985, Lauter and her family relocated to Washington, D.C., and then to Atlanta, where she went on to work for the Atlanta chapter of the ADL, later becoming the national organization’s senior vice president overseeing the civil rights division.
Born in Oakland and brought up in Sacramento, Lauter still considers the Bay Area home. In 2016, she was a presenter at Limmud Bay Area in Rohnert Park, giving talks titled “New Manifestations of the Oldest Hate: Anti-Semitism Today” and “Civil Rights: Not a History Lesson; a Current Event.”
“We still root for the Giants, the Warriors and the 49ers,” she said.
Lauter believes the spike in anti-Semitism is part of a broader atmosphere of hate nationally. So while her office is focused now on ending hate crimes against Jews, she expects to be turning her attention to other groups before long.
“Unfortunately, the lid has come off the sewer and there’s some normalization of hate in this country,” she said. “My focus in these four months has been on the ones motivated by anti-Semitism. I’m clearly very worried about what’s happening to the Muslim community, to the LGBTQ community, to the undocumented community — neighbors of ours who are still living in the shadows.”