Community: Unity in the Valley – PV Smoke Signal

Unity in the Valley is comprised of a group of community leaders in the Pascack Valley of Bergen County, New Jersey, united in their opposition to all forms of hate and aggression towards any group or individual. Its mission is to help build tolerance and understanding for all through education in order to foster a safer, more accepting community.

Created in 2018 by local municipal leaders from Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale and Woodcliff Lake, along with support from the Superintendent of Schools for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, Unity in the Valley has grown to include a cross-section of religious leaders, student groups, law enforcement and volunteer organizations.

I was one of the faith leaders who spoke at a gathering on March 19, 2019 at Pascack Valley High School. Below is a copy of the article written by Rachel Cohen and Madison Gallo for Pascack Valley’s Smoke Signal: PVRHSD holds Unity in the Valley event at PV.

New Jersey’s 61st Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is the first Sikh in the U.S. to become an attorney general. Gurbir gave a keynote presentation, along with prominent community members, students, faith leaders, and a message from New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer at the Unity in the Valley event that took place at 7 p.m. in the Pascack Valley auditorium on Tuesday, March 19.

“We’re gathering together to say that we’re not going to let someone else change who were are,” said Pastor Marc Stutzel of the Christ Lutheran Church.

Grewal, a Bergen County native who grew up in Westwood and Washington Township, shared anecdotes of times when he was faced with hate. He was sworn in twice as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York, and Bergen County. Grewal was appointed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy as the New Jersey Attorney General around 14 months ago.

“As our state’s chief law enforcement officer, I am committed to using all of the tools of this office to protect those in danger,” Grewal said. “We must treat an act of hate against any one of our communities as an act of hate against all of our communities. We must also push back when the federal government fails to protect all of its residents or when it pursues half baked policies that do nothing to make us safer. It’s not just the federal government — we must also hold our local governments accountable.”“

Grewal is a Sikh, which means he practices Sikhism, a religion founded in the Northern Indian region of Punjab. As a Sikh, Grewal covers his head with a turban. He is the first Sikh Attorney General in the nation.  

Grewal said children have approached him asking for three wishes or if he was Osama Bin Laden while their parents stood by and did nothing. While Grewal was the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of New Jersey, he was stopped at a security gate because the guard claimed he “wasn’t on the list” to speak to young professionals at a corporation in New Jersey; ironically, he was giving a presentation about diversity and inclusivity.

“I have been told to go back home so many times and in such impolite terms, but I know they don’t mean go back to Bergen County,” Grewal said. “I have been called at times a towel head, a rag head, a terrorist. Sometimes, I endure these experiences alone, but unfortunately other times, I’ve experienced them as my three young daughters have watched.”

“[Hateful comments] are no longer being confined to the dark corners of the internet,” Grewal said. “They are now being said in our public squares. We have seen recent acts of vandalism across this county and across the state where individuals have painted the walls of schools, synagogues, and homes of words that we thought long disappeared from our memories. It happened right here at Pascack Valley, and it happened more than once. Just one week after finding those swastikasofficials found racist and homophobic slurs etched onto plaques of the baseball field.”

Personal ties to hate influence Mayor of Montvale

Michael Ghassali, the mayor of Montvale and the president of the Pascack Valley Mayors Association, said that hate is “a crime, an offense like murder, arson, and vandalism with bias against race, color, religion, disabilities, sexual orientation, gender, and nationality” while he was discussing experiences of hate in his personal life.“

One of the instances he spoke about was the murder of his cousin in May of 2015 at the hands of terrorists from ISIS.

“In 1915, 1.5 million Armenians and 600 Syrians were killed because of their faith and their nationality, and between 1941 to 1945, 6 million Jewish people were killed because of their faith and millions suffered,” Ghassali said. “As recent as the last few years, 500,000 Muslims and Christians were killed in Iraq and Syria because of their beliefs. We stand here today to declare that we will not stand for hate in any form and towards anyone.”

Ghassali said that students and children can become “wonders” to the world to make society an accepting place.

“They can cure cancer, they can build bridges and highways to make our lives better, and I promise you,” Ghassali said, “we are here to cheer you on.”

‘The wound is still blistering’ 

PV seniors and co-presidents of PV’s Human Rights League Bianca Belmonte and Samantha Nicklas spoke about the need for individuals to act in order to make a difference.

“We became infamous for publishing an opinion piece on [The Smoke Signal] that addressed the racism and bigotry going on in our school,” Belmonte said. “It was the Human Rights League that ripped the bandaid off the wound and acknowledged what was happening. But unfortunately, that wound is still blistering.”

Belmonte and Nicklas said they want to encourage students to be someone who makes a change by being “proactive rather than reactive.”“

“We didn’t want to say that we’ve moved on and everything’s in the past and that it’s all better now,” Nicklas said. “We wanted to be as real as possible and address what is really going on in the school.”

Belmonte and Nicklas wanted to place an emphasis on depicting the school’s climate genuinely during their presentation, and according to Belmonte, “even the students who aren’t in the Human Rights League know that the [PV] is not in the best shape right now.”

“We understand that the work we do is hard and often unpopular,” Nicklas said. “The Human Rights League is a small group that continues to work tirelessly, and sadly, often times singularly, without as much support from the school or community as we would like. Unfortunately, we cannot force members of the school community to participate. We cannot force people to care.”

PVRHSD Superintendent Erik Gundersen recaps the event

Unity in the Valley, according to Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent Erik Gundersen, is not really an organization. Instead, he refers to it as a concept: “It’s the message, it’s the mission, it’s the symbol.” He intends for Unity in the Valley to be a “larger and louder” message to the symbols of hate.

The organizers of this event are comprised of one city council member from each of the four towns in the PVRHSD: Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale, and and Woodcliff Lake.

“If we can get the 99.9 percent of our community to rally around Unity in the Valley, that will drown out the 0.1 percent of the individuals that are spreading the wrong message,” Gundersen said. “The student speakers were phenomenal, the faith leaders really have a perspective and an angle that we weren’t able to replicate as a school district, and I thought the representatives from the Anti-Defamation league and certainly the Attorney General just had fantastic and meaningful messages for all of us.”