Except when men are working next door, Lauren Menis lives on a quiet tree-lined street in Dunwoody.
At 46, the mother of two has spent the past decade caring for her two children, doing loads of laundry, grocery shopping, making meals, washing dishes, all the things mothers do.
“I was a stay-at-home mom four weeks ago,” Menis said. “Today I am an activist.”
She says she was bored with keeping house, but it’s hard to believe she’d trade any of it for a turn at activism, becoming an unlikely voice against a new wave of racial and ethnic hatred blanketing the country. Yes, standing for those unable to stand for themselves can be rewarding, but it can also be quite challenging, the headache you don’t need but can’t get rid of. It can be a thankless and lonely place, far worse than washing dirty laundry.
But Menis says, “It chose me.”
If that seems odd to you, you’ve never awakened to enough bad news to be completely fed up. Menis has.
It happened, she said, on the morning of Feb. 21 when news of a desecrated Jewish cemetery blared from her television set. Dozens of headstones had been toppled in what Missouri officials described as an “act of desecration.”
And it came amid growing concern about increasing anti-Semitism across the country. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there has been a dramatic spike in violent anti-Semitic assaults, and a marked increase in anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses since 2015.
Menis is a Jew but she isn’t particularly religious nor has she ever done much that could be considered particularly political.
“I just said to myself I’ve had enough,” she said.
Truth is her discontent with the hatred she was seeing had been growing for some time, starting with a white supremacists’ call to harass Jewish people in the town of Whitefish, Mont., late last year; and when she read the Facebook post of a black woman who held her peace as a white man hurled racial slurs at her on a New York City subway train.
“To me, right now if you don’t stand up, you are complicit,” Menis said. “We’re never going to stop hate, but we need to make it known that we won’t have it. Finally I was done.”
She had never felt the sting of racism or hate, but as a Jew growing up in South Africa, she knew what it was like to be part of an oppressive class, to carry with her the burden of guilt.
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“I watched through a child’s eyes as my society, empowered by the rule of law, treated an entire race of people as a different class,” Menis said. “I saw my beloved Ray-Ray, a woman whose only choice was no choice at all, work as a live-in maid, cook and clean for my family and raise me while seeing her own daughter only once a year. I watched as she hid under the bed while policemen banged on the door, ready to take her away if she didn’t have the right stamps in her passbook. I saw her ‘home’ in the back of our house, a room with a concrete floor, a bed and not much more.”
Menis grabbed her phone and texted a group of moms at her children’s Jewish day school. Her message was simple.
“We have to do something about anti-Semitism.”
A former CNN producer who spent the first nine years of her life in Johannesburg, South Africa, witnessing the oppression of blacks, Menis hoped to recruit a group willing to stand together and denounce not just anti-Semitism but hatred of every kind. But she was thinking a newspaper ad might suffice.
Within minutes of Menis hitting the send button on her phone, women started to respond. They ran the gamut from the very accomplished to well-paid professionals. Menis had seen them at school but knew them only as moms.
They created a text group and called it the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism.
But that didn’t seem like enough. She needed to do something that would have a lasting impact. She just didn’t know what. Menis thought of her children, and it dawned on her that unless she did something, they would inherit a world where swastikas and desecrated cemeteries might become the norm.
The women scheduled a meeting.
As her conversations with the other moms continued, so did the movement’s momentum. Several days later, both the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee had signed on to sponsor the effort.
“After that, doors just flew open,” Menis said.
In just one month, people from more than 150 organizations, including Chick-fil-A, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Islamic Speakers Bureau, have signed on to help.
They will meet Thursday morning for the first time to iron out their mission and brainstorm ideas on ways to deal with hate and anti-Semitism in their areas and turn them into grass-roots efforts within the metro Atlanta community.
“The goal is to create dialogue about anti-Semitism and hate because dialogue creates awareness and awareness can create change in attitudes,” Menis said.
Earlier this week, she seemed still surprised by the support she and the other moms have gotten and how quickly the laundry and errands have fallen by the wayside, but there have been no headaches.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding,” Menis said. “I love it. It feels so great to be doing something important.”
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