Incident at Steamboat High School leads local Jewish congregation to join Anti-Defamation League program

On Sept. 26 in the middle of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana — considered one of the highest of Jewish holidays — a Jewish student at Steamboat Springs High School found a swastika scrawled across his car.

The incident was caught on camera, and the offending student has been identified. However, no criminal charges were brought, and the Jewish student’s mother worries it has been framed as a prank between friends that was made in poor taste.

“I would have done a police report if I knew they were going to do nothing,” the mother told the Steamboat Pilot & Today, adding that her son isn’t friends with the student who put the swastika on his car anymore. 

The school’s principal agreed that the relationship between the two students is complicated. Still, the Jewish student’s mother and other members of the Jewish community in Steamboat feel the incident got swept under the rug amid a tumultuous week at the school. 

That’s because the following day, on Sept. 27, two students were arrested in the same parking lot after police allegedly found them in possession of knives and Airsoft rifles following a report of threatening posts they allegedly made on social media. That incident generated headlines statewide. 

“(The swastika) unfortunately got lumped into (the other incident) that was at the high school,” said Rabbi Kolby Morris-Dahary from Har Mishpacha, the Jewish community of Steamboat Springs.

Steamboat Springs High School Principal Rick Elertson said the student who wrote the swastika on the car was punished, but the school can’t disclose what that punishment was to protect the student’s privacy. 

“The hardest part of our job is everybody wants justice,” Elertson said. “But we can’t tell them what the justice is, and so they’re oftentimes left thinking there is no justice.” 

The mother of the Jewish student said she wants the school and community to loudly confront antisemitic crimes and publicly denounce them. 

“Say something to the school community,” the mother said, adding that she felt the school didn’t adequately denounce the antisemitic actions in public. “That’s all I ask for, just stand up and say something.”

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Elertson acknowledged that same family has experienced similar incidents in the past, and he said it’s difficult assigning consequences on an individual basis because the offender might not have a history of the behavior even though the Jewish student has been targeted numerous times.  

“I believe the family has experienced this kind of racism before, prior to this incident,” Elertson said. “And I think that contributes to their frustration in that they want to see an escalation of consequences.”

At the same time, the mother said she has felt alone when confronting the antisemitic acts her family has faced since moving to Steamboat in 2015. 

“My son had swastikas on his car when we first moved here,” she recalled, adding that during the aftermath of that incident, it may have seemed like antisemitism in Steamboat subsided. 

“People were hiding,” she said. “People weren’t saying anything about it.”

The incident in September wasn’t the first at the high school, either. In 2016, a swastika was drawn in the snow on a hood of a car, another was written on a locker and a third was etched into the hood of a separate vehicle, all in the same day, according to newspaper archives.

The school’s principal at the time, Kevin Taulman, said the acts appeared to target two Jewish students specifically. Similar to the most recent incident, people in the community expressed anger with how the vandalism in 2016 was handled.

To raise awareness and provide resources for people targeted by hateful actions, Morris-Dahary recently got her congregation accepted into the Anti-Defamation League’s new engagement program, Kulanu.

Hebrew for “all of us,” Kulanu is meant to help congregations report antisemitic incidents to the ADL and provide resources to cultivate community-wide opposition to hate, not just defending those of the Jewish faith but all populations. Har Mishpacha is only the second Jewish congregation to be accepted into Kulanu in Colorado.

“I’m really excited to get their support and resources,” said Morris-Dahary. “And most of all, to learn how, in our very unique Steamboat community, to address that issue.”

Morris-Dahary became Steamboat’s first full-time rabbi back in August, and in the following months, she has heard about numerous antisemitic incidents from members of her congregation. She said that the recent antisemitic incidents in the area are what motivated her to apply for Har Mishpacha’s inclusion in Kulanu. 

“That was not an isolated incident,” Morris-Dahary said. “But unfortunately, it is beneath the surface and a bigger issue than any of us would like to admit.”

Morris-Dahary said she doesn’t want to come across as an “alarmist” when engaging with the community, but she does want antisemitic crimes to be identified, acknowledged and rebuked by the community. Antisemitic crimes often go under the radar, which is a trend the anti-defamation league seeks to correct. 

“People have all sorts of different reactions to being the target of a crime or a hate incident,” said Sue Parker Gerson, a spokesperson for ADL Mountain States. “And I wouldn’t want necessarily to qualify any of those responses as being good or bad. … We really work on empowering constituents to do what feels comfortable for them.”

According to a survey commissioned by ADL Mountain States and Hate Free Colorado, the number of antisemitic incidents in Colorado is largely underreported. According to a statewide survey, among those who experienced a hate crime or bias-motivated incident in Colorado, only 29% reported it to anyone and only 18% reported it to police.

As recently as Friday, Nov. 4, a swastika was written in snow next to the N-word on an SUV in Craig. A member of the local Jewish congregation provided a photo of that incident.

“Antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021,” Morris-Dahary said. 

According to the ADL, 2,717 incidents of antisemitic assault, vandalism and harassment were recorded in 2021, a 34% increase over the previous year and the highest number since the ADL started reporting in 1979.

Antisemitic assaults, the most violent category of incidences, were 167% higher in 2021 than the previous year, jumping from 33 to 88 reported incidents.

The survey commissioned by the ADL also found that three out of 10 adult participants, meaning an estimated 1.25 million Coloradans, said they were targeted with “verbal harassment, property damage, and/or physical injury within the last five years.”

Morris-Dahary said her efforts and resources aren’t limited to those of the Jewish faith, and all instances of discrimination should be confronted through a collaborative, community-wide effort.  

While recent incidents have weighed heavily on her, Morris-Dahary said she is optimistic about the future. 

“For the most part, the Jewish community feels very accepted and respected in the Steamboat Springs community,” Morris-Dahary said. “We have immense gratitude to our multi-faith partners and allies in the community especially Heart of Steamboat, our generous hosts.”

She said she would be interested in hearing from anyone in the community interested in helping combat all forms of discrimination. 

“There is so much work to be done, and yet we still have hope,” she said.

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