By LINDA MOSS
In homes in Montclair and across North Jersey, residents are breaking bread with Syrian refugees, sharing food and conversation. These dinners, aimed at fostering understanding and communication, are being organized by the Syria Supper Club, a group firmly rooted in the township.
NJ 11th For Change, an organization founded by Montclair residents, continues to host protests at the New Jersey offices of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11, pressuring him to hold town hall meetings. Houses of worship, residents and some shops in the township have put up signs with the same message — “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” — in three languages, Spanish, Arabic and English.
A couple who live on a busy section of Valley Road have planted a homemade wooden sign on their lawn that simply says “Resist.” Even Montclair High School students have started a political protest group, Take Action MHS. Residents of Montclair, long known as a liberal-leaning town, have sprung into action since Donald Trump’s election as president, reacting to the rollout of his executive orders regarding immigration and travel for Muslim-majority nations, and other hot-button issues.
Montclair has become a hub for so-called “resist” activity in North Jersey, with groups forming to rally against some of Trump’s policies and existing organizations, including BlueWaveNJ, mobilizing to protest them. In the wake of Trump’s election, BlueWaveNJ has seen a surge in its membership, according to the organization’s president, Marcia Marley.
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There’s no doubt that Montclair was a “Blue” municipality in November. Hillary Clinton tallied roughly nine times as many votes in the township as Trump — 18,048 to 2,318 — according to Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin. A large continent of Montclair residents traveled to Washington on Jan. 21 for the Women’s March or took part in local marches, and the Township Council recently declared Montclair a “welcoming” community for immigrants.
“Montclair is a very progressive town,” said Angela Suarez, who helped organize an activist postcard writing event last month. “The population is very diversified and generally liberal. We accept everybody. That’s what’s great about this town. There is very little judgment. Everybody’s welcome. And everything that you see goes against that. It’s hard to not get upset.”
Roland Straten, chairman of the Montclair Republican Committee, classifies the flurry of post-election activity as “the I-hate-Donald-Trump groups.”
Syria Supper Club expands
Immigration, the treatment of refugees and human rights appear to be of paramount importance to Montclair, and several groups in town are addrssing those issues in distinct ways. Kate McCaffrey and Melina Macall, both members of the Bnai Keshet synagogue in Montclair, have been actively involved in the refugee issue since 2015, when they held a a dinner with Syrian Muslims.
McCaffrey, a professor at Montclair State University, and Macall, a professor at William Paterson University, ramped up those efforts last year with the creation of the Syria Supper Club, which has garnered national press attention from CNN, The New York Times and NPR.
The Syria Supper Club signs up hosts to hold the dinners in their homes, where the meal is prepared by Syrian refugees, who offer up their native cuisine to roughly 15 attendees. Through this collaboration, local residents and refugees share the meal and chat, through interpreters, with the U.S. newcomers sharing their experiences.
There’s been a groundswell of support for the Syria Supper Club initiative, with some people traveling from as far away as Maryland to attend dinners in North Jersey. A number of the suppers have been held in Montclair, the most recent one last Sunday.
McCaffrey and Macall said that they are in the process of incorporating Syria Supper Club as a nonprofit. And the organization is spreading to other venues, with people interested in forming them in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Maryland, Connecticut and Westchester County, they said.
NJ 11th For Change, which has a different mission than Syria Supper Club, got its start last fall following a post on the Montclair Watercooler Facebook page by resident David Rosenberg. Originally a conversation about how the township was divided between the 10th and 11th congressional districts, the group has evolved and is now a registered nonprofit and a federal Super PAC, according to Debra Caplan, who is on NJ 11th for Change’s steering committee.
The organization has gathered about 2,800 signatures calling for Frelinghuysen, a strong supporter of Trump policies, to hold town meetings. The nonprofit is also organizing protests at his district offices every week, said Caplan.
“We’re looking for transparency and accountability from our congressional representative and we’re also looking for him to represent the views of this district,” Caplan said.
A sign of the times
Several Montclair women came back from the Jan. 21 Women’s March in Washington wanting to keep their activism going. They found different ways to do that. Deirdre Birmingham and her husband, Jason Luther, who live on the corner of Vera Place and Valley Road, came up with their own plan to continue the momentum.
At the end of January they put up a small plastic sign they had ordered that said “Resist.” When that sign blew away in a recent windstorm, Luther made a replacement sign of wood and put it up last week.
“After the march I felt like why don’t we put this out there,” Birmingham said. “We live on a very visible corner. It’ll be a reminder. And it’s almost a reminder for me: I drive home and I’m like yes, resist … and I just kind of want the notion to spread.”
Similarly, Suarez and a friend, Michelle Dice, attended the Washington march and wanted to continue their opposition to Trump initiatives. They and three other Montclair women decided to hold a Community Postcard Event in late February at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, to facilitate residents sending messages to lawmakers regarding issues such as women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, the environment and health care.
About 200 people came to the event, which generated roughly 1,400 postcards, according to Suarez. Her group put postage on the cards and mailed them, and through various donations the group was able to cover its mailing costs and to donate about $300 to Toni’s Kitchen, which is run by St. Luke’s, Suarez said.
Established groups rally
BlueWaveNJ, one of the town’s oldest grassroots progressive organizations, held a meeting in November shortly after the election to determine how to organize action following Trump’s election, president Marley said. The group, founded in 2005, expected about 150 people to attend but 600 showed up, according to Marley.
BlueWaveNJ was “inundated,” with 500 to 600 new dues-paying members and several thousand volunteers who want to be active in the group, Marley said. As part of its mobilization, BlueWaveNJ is also working with other organizations on projects and training members of other groups, Marley said.
Several members of the Montclair Clergy Association have been actively involved in immigrant rights, including recent protests in Newark, said the Rev. John Mennell of St. Luke’s. He and another member of that group, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, led an effort to download the template, from WelcomeYourNeighbor.org, for the tri-color, tri-language signs that have sprouted around town supporting immigrants.
“We thought it was important to show, number 1, the immigrant community that they are welcome here, that all these people are our neighbors,” Mennell said. “It’s an important part of each of our faiths. … As this has become such a public issue and the tide seems to be changing, so it’s no longer an option to reman silent. The ubiquitousness of the signs speaks to how many of us feel called to action in this way.”
An opposing voice
Local GOP leader Straten said he views the flurry of activist activity in Montclair over the new adminstration’s policies as essentially a refusal to deal with reality.
“The groups — I classify it the liberal left, I guess — can’t accept the fact that Donald Trump won the election,” he said.
Montclair’s overall population is affluent and can’t understand why blue-collar Americans who typically vote the Democratic line instead cast their ballots for Trump, according to Straten. “This town really is the 1 percent,” he said. “These are the people that have the money. They’re the elites, and they don’t understand that most of the people that voted for Trump were hurting, were being hurt by a lot of these so-called progressive programs, which in my opinion don’t help the poor. This is obviously a big matter of opinion.”
Straten also repeated comments he made at a recent council meeting, that residents are not tolerant of those with different political views.
“We do have 20 or 30 percent who are Republicans,” Straten said. “That’s 6,000 or 7,000 people in Montclair who are really frightened to speak their minds … It’s OK to say, ‘Let’s all get together and support the president of the United States.’”