Courage and compassion overcome cowardice

When they said “no,” I knew it was not a drill. The “no” came in response to my request the morning of Feb. 21 to quickly grab my sweatshirt, hanging in a locker at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center.

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

About 20 of us had been exercising there. Suddenly, JCC staff told all of us we needed to leave the building – “Now!”

As we walked out, we were accompanied by little children. Some walked. Some were wheeled out in baby buggies or cribs. It was quite a crew on the sidewalk, from infants to people I’d say were well over 70. The JCC staff smiled and explained we were going to visit the firefighters.

We walked half a block to St. Paul Fire Station 19. The firefighters warmly welcomed all of us – the children, the seniors, the JCC staff. They moved one of their trucks to provide room and put down mats on the concrete floor for the children to sit on. Then two of them, Martha Fecht and Todd Hanson, began giving the youngsters a demonstration of what firefighters wear when they go to a fire. The children were fascinated.

After the demonstration, firefighters brought out a video player and arranged for the youngsters to watch a movie. Firefighters also gave the youngsters a snack. Everything was calm and positive.

After about an hour, I left, as I had an appointment. Walking back toward my car, I saw seven or eight police cars around the JCC. One policeman explained that he was sorry but I would not be able to go into the JCC for that sweatshirt.

Later that day, newspapers reported that there had been a bomb threat at the JCC. Some individual or group of cowards had called it in. Apparently, this has happened throughout the country.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations announced a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who threatened to bomb the JCC’s. “It is the duty of American Muslims to offer support to the Jewish community and any minority group targeted in the recent spike in hate crimes nationwide,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad in a press release, found at

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, told me by phone there has been “a wonderful reservoir of support” from community members for Jewish people. Political leaders, including St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and President Donald Trump, had condemned anti-Semitism.

These statements are welcome. But what most impressed me was the calm courage of the JCC staff and the compassion of the St. Paul firefighters. Richard Ritter, a St. Paul firefighter and paramedic, told me that the firehouse is a “safe haven” for anyone in need.

My hope and prayer is not just the firehouse but America can continue to be a “safe haven.” We can’t and won’t solve all the world’s problems. But creative collaborations, like those between the JCC and St. Paul Fire, help. And with the kind of courage and compassion I saw displayed, we will challenge, reduce and someday, overcome prejudice, cowardice and hatred.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]