A Dunwoody homemaker’s outrage over recent anti-Semitic threats and vandalism across the country has spawned a rapidly growing advocacy organization that hopes to send a nationwide message against fear and hate.
“I want to stand up and be as loud as the people making the bomb threats,” said Lauren Menis, founder of the new Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism.
Menis’s text-message chats with other Davis Academy moms last month snowballed into the creation of AIAAS, which has already won support from the regional chapters of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
The group hopes eventually to hold some kind of public town hall forums. On March 30, it plans a private organizing meeting that representatives of local governments and religious and cultural groups will attend, including some Dunwoody City Council members and the Sandy Springs police chief. Others on the attendance list range from the FBI to the Coca-Cola Company, and from Christian churches to police departments as far away as Woodstock and Alpharetta.
“I am very impressed by the grassroots efforts that Lauren has created,” said Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee’s Buckhead-based Atlanta chapter. “The greater awareness we bring to the issue of anti-Semitism, the better off we will all be. If we are able to create complementary efforts to combat anti-Semitism, we will be able to have a greater impact than by ourselves.”
Menis is Jewish, but “not particularly religious,” and said she has not been involved in advocacy organizing before. Her background is in the media as a producer at CNN and a local newspaper columnist.
The north Perimeter area has a large Jewish population and such cultural institutions as the “Anne Frank in the World” exhibit in Sandy Springs. Two local organizations — the ADL’s Southeast regional office in Buckhead and Dunwoody’s Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta — have received bomb threats recently.
Menis said her activism is not in response to any local anti-Semitic incidents, but rather to the nationwide rise in threats and general intolerance.
“I have never had a problem with anti-Semitism and I feel perfectly safe in my community,” she said “I think what happened to me personally is, I started to feel a twinge of fear.”
Menis described several influences. She has previously visited Whitefish, a Montana resort town now notorious as a home of the “alt-right” white nationalist movement that gained publicity for supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and which Trump later denounced. She was angered by posts insulting Muslims made on the Facebook account of a former Dunwoody assistant city attorney who said his account was hacked.
The final straw, she said, was news reports in February about desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, one of several such vandalism incidents around the nation.
“I thought to myself, ‘I have to do something about anti-Semitism,’” Menis said.
With her journalism background, Menis said, “I wanted a media statement: ‘Atlanta decries anti-Semitism.’”
She acknowledged that AIAAS’s organizers have yet to come up with a more solid agenda, which will be a focus of the March 30 meeting.
However, the effort seems to be tapping a desire for more discussion about anti-Semitism. The ADL and the American Jewish Committee have signed on as co-sponsors of the organizing meeting, and many prominent groups are sending representatives, including the MJCCA, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Davis Academy and the Weber School.
Sandy Springs city Communications Director Sharon Kraun, who is Jewish and said she is well aware of the national threats, will attend along with Police Chief Ken DeSimone.
“We’ll go and listen,” Kraun said, adding that city officials are curious to hear AIAAS’ agenda.
“As far as anti-Semitism, the city has been very vocal that we don’t tolerate any kind of behavior that is against anyone,” Kraun said. “We support any effort that is combatting hate and intolerance.”
Menis said that one potential function of AIAAS — whose founding group has a Muslim member — is bringing together leaders from beyond the Jewish community.
“Anti-Semitism isn’t a Jewish problem,” she said. “It’s a community problem.”