By Rich Tenorio
Asked about his priorities in the new position, Steinberg said, “I’m really encouraged to see young people connecting with the more than century-long work of the ADL and continuing to do that in such constructive, uplifting ways.” And, he said, “Building partnerships, allyships with organizations in our Jewish community and between organizations in our Jewish community and neighbors in New England are priorities. It’s important to make connections in this quiet time.”
Steinberg knows that things have often been anything but quiet lately.
He cited the ADL’s “Hate in the Bay State” report, which tracked a 41% rise in antisemitic incidents in Massachusetts between 2021 and 2022, from 108 such incidents to 152. The latter number was sixth nationwide. He noted a June 16, 2023, incident in which the sole synagogue in Taunton—Congregation Agudath Achim, a progressive congregation that displays a Pride flag on its building—was defaced with a swastika and antisemitic, anti-Black and anti-LGBTQIA+ graffiti.
“It underscores how vital the work of the ADL is, how timely, how necessary,” Steinberg said. “Of course, I am concerned. All are concerned about the rise of antisemitism and other forms of hate that we see.”
Steinberg joined ADL New England shortly after the launch of CJP’s “Face Jewish Hate” initiative at TD Garden on May 15, 2023. He is ready to assist in the fight against antisemitism in the Boston area and nationwide, including through two initiatives announced in the first half of 2023: CJP’s 5-point plan and the White House national strategy.
Asked about identifying perpetrators of hate crimes and bringing them to justice, Steinberg noted the work of the ADL Center on Extremism, headquartered in New York.
“In some instances, we can be quite specific on who is behind an incident,” he said, adding that some perpetrators are “proud to leave a signature; in other instances, we can’t be sure unless and until law enforcement concludes an investigation and comes to a clear identification as to a perpetrator. But, in all instances, these actors, whether targeting people directly—most concerning of all—or targeting places in which people gather, are not only targeting the individuals themselves or those particular spaces, but our entire community.”
Steinberg comes to the ADL from a diverse background. His appointment is groundbreaking, as he is the first rabbi in his position. (He noted that he is not the first rabbi to join the ADL, mentioning fellow spiritual leader Ron Fish.) Like his predecessor as New England division head, Robert Trestan, Steinberg was born in Canada. As a teenager, Steinberg also lived in Vienna, where his father headed the regional office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee during the Cold War.
“Of course, in those years, that was as far east as you could get and still be in a Western capital,” Steinberg recalled. “It was the center of operations for what was then Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, a transit point for Soviet Jews, Iranian Jews, Persian Jews out of those countries.”
He said that in those days, Austria contained “a deeply antisemitic culture, a culture where antisemitism was deeply enmeshed,” to the point where its schoolchildren used the term “full Jew” as “an insult to one another, not so much me, my sister or members of my family. I heard it as an insult among Austrians. They never did the collective national soul-searching.”
Steinberg went on to become a rabbi, as well as a faculty member at multiple universities. He eventually headed Harvard Hillel for more than a decade—an experience that’s given him valuable perspective in his new job for dealing with antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus.
“I would say, after 12 years on campus, I could see a unique focus on Israel,” he said. “It is really unlike the treatment of any other national, ethnic or religious community on college campuses. I think that former Harvard president Larry Summers was very right in calling it antisemitism in effect, if not in intent.”
In his new position, Steinberg said, “it’s important to us to work with deans and [diversity, equity and inclusion] offices to make sure we tackle antisemitism … along with tackling other forms of hate that manifest on campus.”
Steinberg is now ready to apply his lessons from Harvard to his new work in Boston and New England.
“I had one dozen wonderful years with the university community,” Steinberg said of his time in Cambridge, “and I hope now to be working with our entire community. I’m not leaving college behind or the university behind in the work of the ADL. This was the right call at the right time.”
Rich Tenorio covers antisemitism news for JewishBoston.com. His work has appeared in international, national, regional and local media outlets. He is a graduate of Harvard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a cartoonist. Email him at email@example.com.