I often say in my seminars that if you believe a youngster is an adult, then punish the youngster as you would an adult. However, if you believe that young people are not yet adults and you want to prevent their becoming incarcerated with the other 2,0000,000 imprisoned people in this country, then punishment may not be the most effective approach.
I was reminded of this when I read that 82-year-old Eugene Markovitz passed away from pneumonia. How he handled four youths after punishable behavior inspired a 1994 CBS television movie, “The Writing on the Wall,” starring Hal Landon.
The actual incident occurred on Halloween night in 1988 and attracted national media attention. As a Halloween prank, four youths struck four sites in Clifton, New Jersey: the garage of Markovitz’s home, the Clifton Jewish Center, a kosher meat market, and the car of an elderly Jew. Using shaving cream and blue paint, the boys scrawled swastikas, stars of David, and phrases such as, “I hate Jews,” “Hitler should have killed you all,” and “Go back to your own country” on the properties.
Caught quickly, the New Jersey youths, far from being Neo-Nazis, were all 13 and 14 years old and the sons of a police officer, a dentist, a teacher, and a banker. The superior court judge was ready to send the boys to juvenile prison for two years but first he consulted Markovitz—who, contrary to the views of other adults, recommended community service—including education about Judaism in order to enlighten and educate the boys.
Markovitz, who retired as Rabbi of the Clifton Jewish Center after 52 years, insisted that, “One must never give up on young people.” In 1990 he told Time Magazine, “In Judaism, it’s literally a crime to do so.”
Through the boys’ community service—which included sessions with the rabbi—the boys learned about Judaism and its commonality with Christianity, the Holocaust, their own multi-ethnic country, and even their own family histories, which included migration from Eastern Europe. The boys learned about the Nazi concentration camps and the awful stigma of the swastika symbol. One boy learned that his own grandfather had risked his life to hide Jews beneath the floorboards of his home in northern Holland during World War II—a legacy his family had never discussed.
None of the boys ever became involved in another crime, and one even became a police officer in Clifton.