The religious divide: Incidents of anti-Semitism spotlight divisions in Routt County, one of nation’s least religious counties

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A few years ago, Sam Ogden heard that someone carved a swastika into a Steamboat Springs High School student’s car along with other Nazi-inspired vandalism. The incidents made the local and national news. He said a few Steamboat friends acted shocked.

They told Ogden, “’This isn’t the Steamboat I know. … This isn’t the Steamboat I graduated from,’” he said.

“They blamed it on Trump, but I told them ‘I don’t know which high school you went to, but it (swastikas) was all over my high school,’” he said, pointing out he graduated in 2013 before President Trump was elected.

“In middle school, people would push me into lockers and call me Jew boy or tell me I had a Jew fro,” said the now 25-year-old park ranger. “In high school, it was less overt — more backhanded type of comments.”

And he said swastikas were all over the school and not always accurately drawn.

“In the bathrooms, I used to put sticky notes on them saying, ‘if you’re going to draw a hate symbol, at least do it correctly,’” Ogden said.

He handled the situation with humor and quickly realized that ignorance was mostly to blame, and surprisingly, TV and film comedy.

“Kids were watching the Borat movie and South Park,” he explained.

He said the shows featured anti-semitic tropes that were satirized, and those satiric messages went right over the kids’ heads.

In a county where only 30% of residents say they belong to a religious denomination, one might expect religion wouldn’t play a major role in society, and issues like anti-Semitism would not be something students in Routt County would have to deal with.

Buddhist Tim McCarthy disagrees.

“We all came from some religious tradition, whether you’re practicing it or not,” said McCarthy, who founded Exploring the Sacred with his wife, Marchele.

Exploring the Sacred is a forum of Routt County religious leaders that hosts discussions for the public that address critical issues in today’s culture.

“We all have a history that is steeped in some religion that plays out,” McCarthy said. “That hatred comes from somewhere — ‘Oh, you’re part of that group. I’m part of that group.’”

Steamboat Springs garnered media attention in early 2017 after Jewish congregant and mom Paula Salky went public, criticizing the high school’s handling of several incidents targeting Jewish students, including swastikas drawn on their cars and lockers. While police reports were filed, Salky said the administration at the time did little to immediately address the situation.

“They needed to use this as an opportunity to teach tolerance and make a difference,” said Salky, who even sent educational tools used by the Anti-Defamation League to high school administrators.

Cindy Ruzicka, who teaches religion and Hebrew at Har Mishpacha, Steamboat’s Jewish congregation, said the high school missed an opportunity then to hit the issue head on. She said the school held an assembly that was supposed to address the issue, but her daughter told her the school assembly was very vague and talked generically about inclusivity.

When no concrete suspects were linked to the swastika incidents, Ruzicka worried about her daughter, a freshman at the time.

“Those kids that were targeted didn’t really identify as being Jewish, they were half Jewish,” said Ruzicka, who helped establish Har Mishpacha 20 years ago. “But for my daughter, who fully identifies as Jewish, it was an instant moment of complete fear. My daughter had a necklace with a Jewish symbol on it, and she just stopped wearing it.”

Teaching tolerance and restorative justice

Steamboat Springs Superintendent Brad Meeks recently reflected on the swastika controversy.

“I know there was a lot of time spent on trying to track down who did it, and perhaps, more could have been done,” he said. “However, should this happen today, it would be handled differently because we’ve had additional training to respond to these type of incidents.”

Meeks said the new training to deal with offensive acts was put into action last winter when a hate symbol showed up at Steamboat’s alternative school, and Yampa Valley High School Principal Karla Setter took immediate action.

She pulled information from the Anti-Defamation League’s educational tools to create lesson plans that gave students historical context on hate symbols and their insidious effects on society.

“All our students did a great job of engaging in a respectful way, and they have a better understanding of how damaging it can be,” Setter said.

Yampa Valley High School went a step further and had students form small study groups where they had to identify a group they didn’t understand or relate to very well — be it the elderly, rich or poor, Christian or non-Christian or immigrant.

“We were working to identify the ‘other,’ and the implicit and explicit biases we all have,” Setter said.

She said students also talked about how online platforms and social media can seduce impressionable young people with hate-oriented propaganda and ideology that makes them feel part of something.

Steamboat Springs Middle School Restorative Practices Coordinator Allison Wither said middle school is a particularly vulnerable time.

“It’s such a time of formative identity,” Wither said. “We start to identify who we are aside from our families and friends. That concept of ‘other’ really comes out in middle school, along with awkwardness.”

Wither is one of the district’s interventionists who help students hash out problems between each other under the auspices of “restorative justice.” As of a year and a half ago, all teachers in the district have been trained in this technique, which brings victims and persecutors together.

“We create a safe space to have those difficult conversations, giving everyone an equal voice in that process and allowing them to talk,” Wither said.

Whether it’s homophobic language or religious discrimination, Wither wants the kids themselves to understand that everyone should feel safe in a classroom.

“Your family may have certain feelings or beliefs about people, but at school, everyone should feel safe,” Wither said.

Jay Hamric, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said addressing tolerance issues with restorative justice is supplemented by a curriculum that addresses history’s conflicts with race, religion and other values.

From an intense unit on the Holocaust to a major peace and justice project to world religion, students are challenged to go deep from eighth-grade through their senior year.

“Throughout our district, we study different points of history and human conflict and study causes and how it impacts our current society,” Hamric said. “We’ve created some pretty exciting programs in our district about racial and religious differences and creating tolerance.”

Religious leaders and the Golden Rule

Schools can only deal with religion on an academic level while most Routt County religious leaders believe the spiritual connection starts at the community level. 

“Our country is steeped in Christianity, and the rhetoric you hear from both presidential candidates is a Christian-based rhetoric,” said Tim McCarthy of Exploring the Sacred. “Politicians aren’t going to solve these problems. It’s little communities coming together to make a difference. Change starts in your family and spills out in the community and goes in the other direction — not top down, but from the bottom up.”

Har Mishpacha’s religious teacher Cindy Ruzicka agrees.

“Find someone who has different beliefs than you and have a conversation with them,” Ruzicka said. “When you speak to someone, the impact is far deeper than any reading exercise or film you watch. In many ways, I’d rather be the educator, because I know fact from myth.”

Ruzicka said another opportunity for unifying the community was missed when the county didn’t allow for a menorah on the Routt County Courthouse lawn six years ago during the Chanukah holiday season.

“They told us it was a slippery slope — ‘If we allow a menorah, someone will want to put in a Buddah’ — and so forth and so on,” Ruzicka said. “There are many communities that do allow for multiple religious symbols. It’s unifying. How can it not be?”

Local religious leaders from four of the five major world faiths who were interviewed for this article pointed to the Golden Rule as sacred in their texts: “Treat others the way you would like to be treated.”

And while Routt County is among the least church-going counties in the country, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, its religious leaders believe the population is mostly spiritually driven, be it prompted by a stunning environment or a god.

As leader of the largest denomination in the county, Holy Name Catholic Church, Father Ernest Bayer has a simple philosophy when it comes to other’s beliefs.

“Approach them with a respectful mystery,” he urged. “All the major religions have a unifying principle — love, peace and serving others.”

Bayer also believes everyone has a void they’re trying to fill, and it’s better to fill that hole with spirituality and love, especially when it comes to teenagers.

“Love is how we connect. The opposite of that is carving a swastika in someone’s car or intimidating them,” Bayer said.

As a practitioner of Islam, retired professor Stephen Aigner moved to Steamboat in 2006 and carefully observed his new community. He discovered the interfaith group Exploring the Sacred and decided to become part of its panel of religious leaders.

Aigner said there are few followers of Islam in Steamboat, except mostly foreign visa holders, but they pray together every Friday at the Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church. And while Aigner lives in a small town, he said the people of Steamboat are not small-minded.

“You feel welcomed because people here appreciate different viewpoints,” Aigner said. “They’re more curious and willing to learn more than virtually any other community I’ve lived in.”

Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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