Courage and compassion overcome cowardice

Originally published by, 2/22/17

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

When they said “no,” I knew it was not a drill. The “no” came in response to my request the morning of Feb. 21 to quickly grab my sweatshirt, hanging in a locker at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center.

About 20 of us had been exercising there. Suddenly, JCC staff told all of us we needed to leave the building – “Now!”

As we walked out, we were accompanied by little children. Some walked. Some were wheeled out in baby buggies or cribs. It was quite a crew on the sidewalk, from infants to people I’d say were well over 70. The JCC staff smiled and explained we were going to visit the firefighters.

St. Paul Fire Department Station 19. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

St. Paul Fire Department Station 19. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Martha Fecht and Todd Hanson entertain children with firefighter gear demonstrations. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Martha Fecht and Todd Hanson entertain children with firefighter gear demonstrations. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

We walked half a block to St. Paul Fire Station 19. The firefighters warmly welcomed all of us – the children, the seniors, the JCC staff. They moved one of their trucks to provide room and put down mats on the concrete floor for the children to sit on. Then two of them, Martha Fecht and Todd Hanson, began giving the youngsters a demonstration of what firefighters wear when they go to a fire. The children were fascinated.

After the demonstration, firefighters brought out a video player and arranged for the youngsters to watch a movie. Firefighters also gave the youngsters a snack. Everything was calm and positive.

After about an hour, I left, as I had an appointment. Walking back toward my car, I saw seven or eight police cars around the JCC. One policeman explained that he was sorry but I would not be able to go into the JCC for that sweatshirt.

Later that day, newspapers reported that there had been a bomb threat at the JCC. Some individual or group of cowards had called it in. Apparently, this has happened throughout the country.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations announced a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who threatened to bomb the JCC’s. “It is the duty of American Muslims to offer support to the Jewish community and any minority group targeted in the recent spike in hate crimes nationwide,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad in a press release, found at

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, told me by phone there has been “a wonderful reservoir of support” from community members for Jewish people. Political leaders, including St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and President Donald Trump, had condemned anti-Semitism.

These statements are welcome. But what most impressed me was the calm courage of the JCC staff and the compassion of the St. Paul firefighters. Richard Ritter, a St. Paul firefighter and paramedic, told me that the firehouse is a “safe haven” for anyone in need.

My hope and prayer is not just the firehouse but America can continue to be a “safe haven.” We can’t and won’t solve all the world’s problems. But creative collaborations, like those between the JCC and St. Paul Fire, help. And with the kind of courage and compassion I saw displayed, we will challenge, reduce and someday, overcome prejudice, cowardice and hatred.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at

6 Responses to Joe Nathan column: Courage and compassion overcome cowardice

  1. Doug Knick says:

    Courage and compassion, a mission and vision for our schools. Thank you, Joe.

  2. Peg Larsen says:

    The JCC and firefighters certaintly made a horrible situation the best it could be for all concerned. What a terrible and scary thing to take place. Courage and hope for a better world needs to overcome such acts. I believe it will.

  3. Cowards are those who blame others for the chaos in their lives.

  4. Kayla W. says:

    I am thankful for public servants like our firefighters. I am disappointed by the lack of compassion and understanding that seems to permeate so many corners of our lives. A very similar experience happened at the JCC in Overland Park, KS. That campus is right next to where I used to work, and many of my friends took their kids there to a wonderful daycare. I don’t understand people who would target anyone else with hate, but children? I can’t comprehend how their minds work. Thanks for writing and sharing this piece – very powerful.

  5. Gene Delaune says:


    Wow! Repulsive (threat) and uplifting (SPFD) … thanks for sharing.

    Gene Delaune

  6. Mark L. Miller, Ph.D. says:

    We are all in this together. We will fight the hate fomented by this petty and evil man-child and his supporters. This country is better than that, though constant vigilance is required. Let’s be inspired by MLK, Schindler, the freedom trains, and many others before us who resisted tyrants trying to “divide and conquer ” the rest of us. We are one!