BOSTON (JNS) – In this well-groomed coastal town, members of the small Jewish community and others are trying to determine why its vaunted high school football team used the terms “Auschwitz,” “rabbi,” and “dreidel” while calling plays in a March 12 game against Plymouth North.
The reports, which have sent shockwaves of hurt, anger, and embarrassment through this small South Shore community of 16,000, has drawn national press and is the latest anti-Semitic instance that has involved paid municipal leaders. In late February, then-Lowell School Committee member Robert Hoey Jr. referred to a former school employee as a “kike” on live cable TV. Within days, Hoey had resigned.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a Nazi death camp in Poland during World War II, where more than 1 million Jews were murdered – including at least 200,000 children. It was also a center of torturous medical “experiments” by Nazis that killed thousands. Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, who survived Auschwitz and lives in Newton, said he was shocked to hear that a high school football team would use the term and incorporate it into its playbook. “They were using it because the coach was teaching them that. They didn’t come up with the words on their own,” Arbeiter told the Journal.
“I think it’s very offensive to use the word Auschwitz. It should be a holy word in history, because Auschwitz was not a camp, it was a slaughterhouse. It was designed to murder innocent people, Jewish people, men, women and children – a million Jewish people and maybe 100,000 non-Jews. To use that word today is wrong and should not be done,” he said.
“This was a systemic failure”
High school football in Massachusetts is being played this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the March 12 season opener, the anti-Semitic language was reported to the Duxbury school district by Plymouth North school officials. The following weekend, the team played Silver Lake, but head football coach Dave Maimaron was not on the sidelines. The use of the terms became public on March 22, when the district posted a message on its website informing residents that it had begun an investigation.
“Specifically, it was reported, and ultimately confirmed, that our team used highly offensive language on the field as part of a play-call system designed to make on-field adjustments. It is important to note that while the players clearly demonstrated poor judgment, the responsibility for this incident also lies with the adults overseeing the program. In short, this was a systemic failure,” Superintendent John Antonucci and other school officials said in the statement.
The following day, on March 23, Antonucci acknowledged that the team had used anti-Semitic language during the game. “As our investigation continues to unfold, it has become clear that members of the Duxbury High School football team did, in fact, use anti-Semitic and potentially other inappropriate and derogatory language,” he said in a statement.
On March 24, the district fired head coach Maimaron, who had won five high school Super Bowls in Duxbury over the last 16 years. That day, the district also announced it had hired Edward R. Mitnick of Just Training Solutions, LLC to conducting an investigation into how it happened.
While the town has hired Mitnick to conduct the investigation, it is unclear if any of the report will be made public, according to Duxbury’s public relations firm, Ellis Strategies.
“Regarding the Mitnick report, I don’t know how much of that report will be made public. The administration and legal counsel will determine that once it has been completed,” said Matt Ellis.
Since then, the district has said little about the investigation. “We are in the midst of an investigation into the use of inappropriate language by members of the DHS football team and cannot comment on the exact nature of the terms reportedly used or the duration of time the terms were used,” said Antonucci, who was appointed in 2016.
On April 6, Antonucci addressed the use of anti-Semitic language by the football team at the School Committee’s first meeting since the March 12 game, and said it was “critically important to get the facts correct.” The investigation began last week and is ongoing.
He also said he will not be reconsidering the firing of Maimaron as head football coach.
“What I do want to be clear about, is that the decision to sever ties with Mr. Maimaron as head coach of the football team is final and will not be revisited,”said Antonucci. “When that decision was made, it was made with ample information that led me to the conclusion that a change in leadership was needed for the Duxbury football program. To address the argument made by some members of our community that the language used was not anti-Semitic, I defer to the Anti-Defamation League, the Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights and most importantly, members of the Jewish community in town and all throughout the country who would disagree with that assessment.”
In an email, Athletic Director Thom Holdgate referred questions from the Jewish Journal to Antonucci.
It is unclear if Holdgate attended the March 12 game, but just before the contest, he tweeted a photo of the team on the field in Plymouth, with the caption “Football season is officially underway!” During the two-hour game, he also provided eight score updates on Twitter.
The team’s assistant coaches also have not commented on the use of Jewish and Nazi-related terms in the game. They include Matt Landolfi, Jon Cuccinato, Kyle McCarthy, and freshman coach Mike Armandi, according to the Duxbury High Athletics website. All but McCarthy, who coaches the high school’s wrestling team, are Duxbury educators. Landolfi runs the Partnership Program in the special education department, Cuccinato works in the high school’s guidance department, and Armandi works as an eighth-grade civics teacher.
And, as of April 6, it was unclear if any of the men were still employed as assistant coaches. While last week’s Duxbury football game was canceled, High School Principal James Donovan said in a letter to the community that the team plans to play this Friday against Marshfield. He also reported that “several members of the coaching staff are no longer with the program.”
In a statement, Donovan said that since the March 12 game the team had met with the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, Marshfield’s Rabbi Howard Cohen and state Senator Barry Finegold to learn more about the Shoah. “Since the events of March 12, the football team has shown initiative and has demonstrated significant growth in their understanding of the impact of words and actions on and off the field,” Donovan said.
“A dramatic failure”
Congregation Shirat Hayam in neighboring Marshfield, which is composed of about 40 families, issued a statement that read in part: “The use of terms referring to the Holocaust and Auschwitz death camps has no place in any society that values inclusion and acceptance … To have a reference to that tragic time in history used so flippantly during gameplay is horrifying.”
On April 1, the congregation hosted an online healing program for all members of the community.
“I’d say it’s a dramatic failure on the part of the coaches,” said Rabbi Cohen in an interview. The rabbi recently spoke with the football team’s captains and learned that there appeared to be a history of these audibles being used for some time.
For instance, the term “rabbit,” which would be used to signal a rollout to the right, became “rabbi.” Other words were then thrown in to disguise the signal. Somewhere along the way, Cohen said, more offensive terms like Auschwitz were added. “They couldn’t tell me when each of the terms fell into place,” said Cohen, who believes the coaches were aware of what was going on.
“Why they chose ‘Auschwitz’ and why the coaches didn’t stop it, I cannot begin to guess at that,” Cohen said. “It leaves us all wondering why they didn’t say anything.”
He said he tried to impress on the players that Auschwitz is a general phrase for any number of Nazi death camps and is used as an affirmation of hate by neo-Nazis. Cohen said Duxbury schools have done work to address racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and other forms of hate.
He said the players were remorseful and realized the seriousness of what had happened, given how the pandemic has affected their football season, which was moved from the fall to the spring.
“Football is their life and everything has been upended,” Cohen said. He also understands that the former coach’s life has been upended as well, but “ignorance” of such terms was no excuse. “He just developed a moral blind spot,” Cohen said.
“Appalled, shocked … embarrassed”
On March 22, before he was fired from his coaching job, Maimaron apologized in a statement “for the insensitive, crass and inappropriate language used in the game.”
Maimaron, who has been the head football coach since 2005, earned a coaching stipend of $10,715, according to the school department. Maimaron, who is also employed as a special education teacher at the high school, has been placed on paid administrative leave from that job, according to the school department.
Meanwhile, a letter from the high school principal and athletic director said the team had scheduled two mandatory “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshops.” The first took place on March 31 in the school’s cafeteria. “This program will focus on the Holocaust, not just as a historical event but as a lived experience that continues to impact families every day,” the letter said. “The second workshop will focus on the role and the responsibilities of being an upstander.”
Antonucci told the School Committee the first presentation was with a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor. “The presentation was powerful, and our student athletes walked away with a greater understanding of how the Holocaust was not just an historical event but a lived experience for many in our community,” he said.
In a public meeting on the third night of Passover, Duxbury selectmen and residents anguished over the team’s use of the Jewish and Nazi death camp references. “The hurtful events that have taken place have impacted all of us,” said Selectman Fernando Guitart during the March 29 remote meeting. “I’m appalled, shocked and back to [feeling] shame and embarrassed.”
Antonucci was online for the meeting and said he was not able to discuss any disciplinary action against players or coaches. Antonucci declined to provide selectmen a timeline for when the investigation would be completed.
Duxbury selectmen addressed the controversy after a group called Duxbury For All, formerly known as Prejudice Free Duxbury, issued a statement calling on selectmen to live up to its Feb. 1 anti-discrimination proclamation.
“We at Prejudice Free Duxbury were appalled to hear that our high school football team used blatantly anti-Semitic and other racist language in its play calls in a recent game,” the letter said. “A lapse of judgment on the part of immature young men? We think not. The choice of words such as ‘Auschwitz,’ ‘Gas Chamber,’ ‘Hitler,’ and ‘Holocaust’ can have one intent only – to hurt and offend. This behavior is symptomatic not only of bias, but the belief that belittling others is somehow acceptable behavior. The trivialization of genocide by coaches and players sets a precedent that has no place in building young men into future leaders.”
Amy MacNab, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said the panel could not promise such events would never happen again and acknowledged there were problems in the community. She said the town would work with various organizations on a “clear and collaborative process.”
“What we can promise is the town of Duxbury will never, ever be tolerant of anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism or any other forms of discrimination,” MacNab said.
“Not an isolated incident”
In interviews with members of the Jewish community in Duxbury, and statements made during the selectmen’s meeting, it’s unclear when the anti-Semitic words crept into the team’s playbook.
“Personally, as a community member, I’m disappointed, I’m sad, I’m grieving,” Laura Neprud, the immediate past president of Marshfield’s Congregation Shirat Hayam and a member of the steering committee of Duxbury for All, said in an interview.
Neprud does not know when the offensive terms crept in and said any use of them should have been shut down immediately. “That would have been my gut instinct,” said Neprud, who works in special education at Duxbury Middle School.
Neprud said she has been dealing with the fallout nonstop since word of what happened broke on social media and then became public. She credited school officials and various groups in town for taking action.“It makes me sad,” Neprud said. “I love my town and the people I work with. It’s hard to reconcile there is this underbelly. It’s sad.”
She added that there are those on a town Facebook page who defended the coach. “He’s not a bad person, he’s just a man who made a mistake,” she said. But, she added, “He’s an adult in the room and he should’ve known better.”
“If it was a one-time event,” said Karen Wong, a Jewish member of the steering committee of Duxbury for All, “I think having some conversation and training and setting the record straight on what these words mean would’ve been sufficient. But it’s my understanding is this has been going on for years. Maybe almost 10 years.”
Wong said Monday the selectmen’s response was important and shared her thoughts about what the past two weeks have meant to her as a Jewish woman, who along with her Chinese husband, have raised their three children in Duxbury.
“It’s mostly been a very positive experience,” Wong said of her time in Duxbury, “but I can tell you between the anti-Asian hate that’s been going on in the country and the recent murders [in Atlanta] that brought up a lot of stuff for my family, and then before that even got digested, we had this whole thing break with the football team,” Wong said.
Wong said in the past week she fielded “an unbelievable number of phone calls, emails, text messages from people in the Jewish community who are hurting, most of the people I didn’t even know.”
Wong said she was trying to figure out what was going on, “because I think it’s well-known this was not an isolated incident.”
She told selectmen she spoke with some current and former football families, and while she appreciated the dialog, “nobody that I spoke with will go on the record.” She hoped they would speak openly to the school department and its investigator “because that is really the only way that we can move on from here.”
Christine Hill, a private college admissions counselor in Duxbury, told selectmen about her misgivings regarding what happened.
“I am not at all surprised that this happened,” Hill said. She said she understood the reason for Antonucci’s need to keep much of it private, but she said she has contacted the schools in the past “when my clients have been having issues, my Jewish clients in particular, were being mistreated in the school, and not as much has been done as I would’ve liked. Really, nothing.”
“There is a long history of these things like Karen [Wong] was talking about happening in Duxbury,” Hill added, “and it’s not just the football team, and I really want to make sure we get to the bottom of the entire systematic issue here.”
“This was a systemic institutional problem”
Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Boston office, told the Journal that he welcomed the independent investigation.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions and the community needs answers and it’s essential to have those answers if we’re going to have a pathway forward that includes institutional change,” said Trestan.
Since the play calls became public, Trestan said the ADL has fielded calls from people who reported they heard the Duxbury team using these play calls a year ago.
“This was a systemic institutional problem. What’s different about this case than other cases is that apparently it was going on for a long time, and nobody recognized that it was wrong, and nobody said anything. Nobody asked any questions,” said Trestan. “And that’s an indication that it wasn’t just one game, it was part of the program, it was part of the playbook that was supported and encouraged by the coaching staff.
“The question is how come nobody recognized that calling a football play ‘Auschwitz’ was a problem. Imagine if you’re a Jewish football player on that team or you’re a Jewish player on the opposing team, what message does that send when you hear that play called on the field? And how many students graduated from the program, and left with the message that it’s OK to use ‘Auschwitz’ as a substitute for a football play? And what’s the impact of having learned that in high school, and heard it from the coach or an adult who is a role model? Those are important questions and I think that’s why this is a serious case.”
Duxbury School Committee Chairwoman Kellie Bresnehan said the school board condemned the anti-Semitic terms used by the football team.
“As a Duxbury School Committee chair, longtime Duxbury resident, and parent, I wish to add my voice to many others in our community in strongly condemning the anti-Semitic and offensive remarks made by members of our high school football team. There is no place in our community, or any community, for this kind of hateful speech. I am outraged, disappointed, and profoundly saddened that we find ourselves here. It is not keeping with the core values of our community and school district.”
Senator Barry Finegold meets with team
The matter prompted state Senator Barry Finegold, a Jewish member of the Legislature, to reach out to the team.
“I have heard a lot of line-of-scrimmage audibles, but I never heard anyone use ‘Auschwitz’ before,” he said in a statement inviting the team to meet with him.
The Andover Democrat spoke with the team online on March 27, on the eve of Passover. Finegold played football for Andover High and Franklin & Marshall College.
He said that after he issued his invitation, a team member called him. The superintendent and athletic director arranged a Zoom meeting that he said was well-attended by the team. Finegold did not talk about the on-field play-calling, but instead concentrated on educating the players.
He spoke about the Holocaust, and included clips from the Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List.” He showed the team a picture of his family, his wife and three kids, and told the players these were the types of people who were killed in the death camps.
He played a clip of Auschwitz survivor and author Elie Wiesel talking about the importance of creating a better world so that history does not repeat itself.
Finegold said when he heard about what happened in Duxbury, he could sympathize for the players because they had almost lost their season due to the pandemic.
“At the same time, I was very offended by what was said, and I really truly believe the players are not racist, they are just ignorant, and what I really wanted to do is go down there and explain to them why saying a word like ‘Auschwitz’ is so harmful and hurtful to people who are Jewish,” Finegold said.
One of the things Finegold tried to impress on the team was the Hebrew concept of t’shuvah, which translates to returning or repentance.
“I believe there is a chance for redemption and I do believe being Jewish, you give people a chance for redemption, but I really wanted them to understand the seriousness and why using a word like ‘Auschwitz’ is so hurtful,” Finegold said.
He also got involved with the team because as a lawmaker, he’s aware that 35 percent of students in Massachusetts can’t name a single concentration camp. It’s “a failure on all of us,” he said. He said a proposed bill now in the State House to mandate teaching about genocide is something that should be passed this term.
“I could not be more appalled”
Other Jewish members of the Legislature agreed.
State Senate President Karen Spilka of Ashland said on Twitter: “My father helped to liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp as a US Army soldier. As a Jew who lost family at Auschwitz, a daughter of a WWII veteran, I find the … news about the Duxbury football team and their use of anti-Semitic language appalling.” She called for accountability for those who failed to stop the use of the terms, and passage of the bill promoting genocide education.
“I could not be more appalled by the despicable use of tropes and anti-Semitic language by the Duxbury High School football team,” said state Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat. “That it has apparently been going on for some time without any kind of acknowledgement by anyone in earshot is even more disturbing and demands accountability. There is no time like the present for the Commonwealth to mandate genocide education in our schools.”
During the recent selectmen’s meeting, the Rev. Catherine Cullen of First Parish Duxbury, the Steering Committee of Duxbury for All, and chairwoman of the town’s Interfaith Council, said she was pleased the schools took prompt action to investigate.
“We expect that they will discover that this incident is hardly an isolated incident,” Cullen said.
“What this has uncovered is really systemic bias and prejudice in our town that needs to be addressed by all of us. We see this as an opportunity for the town to come together and work on this systemic bias and prejudice.”
“If you let it go on, you don’t think it’s a problem,” Bruce Rutter, a Duxbury marketing strategist and steering committee member of Duxbury for All, said in an interview.
Across town, he said, reaction to the use of the offensive terms and the coach’s firing was not uniform.
“One group was appalled by what happened,” said Rutter, who thought this would provide a “pivot point” for the town to learn from it. The second group was horrified at what happened, but doesn’t fully grasp its significance. A third wondered why the coach was fired.
“It’s a continuation,” said Rabbi Cohen, reflecting on the subtle anti-Semitism that may be just below the surface in many American communities. “It’s not a one-off. Hopefully, it won’t happen in Duxbury any time soon, but it’s going to happen somewhere else.”