Last Word: Joel Bolstein Uses Spirituality to Fuel Fight Against Hate

Joel Bolstein is a white man with grey hair and cropped beard wearing a grey suit with a blue tie.
Courtesy of Fox Rothschild

Rabbi Michel Yechel Teumin arrived on Ellis Island in 1922, having fled from the pervasive antisemitism in his hometown of Berezin in now-Belarus.

He was the last passenger to step off the boat and, upon doing so, was greeted by members of his village, whom he had helped gather funds to escape. Each villager placed a dollar in Teumin’s hand.

Joel Bolstein often heard this story from his grandmother, Teumin’s daughter, about his great-grandfather. Even amid pogroms and anti-Jewish violence, the rabbi found a way to help his community.

As chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Bolstein, 62, tries to embody his great-grandfather daily.

“I think about it all the time — everything that they went through so I could live here, free from discrimination,” Bolstein said. “I don’t want anybody to be discriminated against because my family history is such that we know what it is. We know what discrimination feels like, what it looks like. I think it’s at the root of everything that I do.”

Bolstein has served as PHRC commissioner since 1999 when he was first appointed by then-Gov. Tom Ridge. The Doylestown resident is also a partner at Fox Rothschild. In the 24 years he’s been a part of the commission — which monitors and investigates complaints of bias, hate and discrimination and provides educational outreach — Bolstein has seen combating antisemitism go from inapplicable to central to his job.

To address rising anti-Jewish hate, Bolstein has worked with PHRC Executive Director Chad Dion Lassiter to fortify Black-Jewish relations in the commonwealth. He believes that forms of hate are connected, and to address antisemitism, you must confront all forms of hate and “speak with one voice.”

Bolstein comes from 22 generations of rabbis, and the Torah his great-grandfather brought from his village sits in the ark at the Chabad Lubavitch of Doylestown, where Bolstein is a member. Although he doesn’t speak behind a pulpit, Bolstein’s approach to his work is near-spiritual.

“Evil has been around since Adam and Eve, and part of me says that there’s evil in the world because God wants all of the good people to fight that,” he said. “That’s kind of the philosophy that I bring to this, which is that good people have to get together and address all the hatred — not just the antisemitism — but racism and everything else that’s affecting our society.”

Drawing from the Torah, Bolstein compares the obligation to address discrimination to the story of Noah: Following the flood that wiped out evil from the world, God insisted that Noah and his family finally leave the ark to begin the work of rebuilding society.

The trouble is, in Bolstein’s world, evil only appears to be mutating, not disappearing. 

When he joined PHRC, Bolstein was still getting to know Pennsylvania. He grew up in the homogenous Scotch Plains township of New Jersey, where there were few minorities. Most of his work as commissioner was investigating employment and housing discrimination against mostly Black community members. The most helpful tool he had was simply to listen and learn.

“You do start to see that there is systemic racism. You can’t say it’s not there. It’s there. It goes back many decades, in terms of employment and housing and education, how we fund education, redlining in terms of housing,” Bolstein said.

But about a decade ago, Bolstein investigated a flyering incident in Central Pennsylvania, where hundreds of leaflets with antisemitic tropes were distributed on cars and around a movie theater, bringing antisemitism to the forefront of his mind.

“That’s probably when it really started to materialize for me,” Bolstein said.

After the Tree of Life synagogue complex shooting, Bolstein could tell that antisemitism would be a growing issue.

Partly because of social media, white supremacists are empowered through quickly growing online communities.

Hate groups used to lurk in people’s basements, finding secret meeting places. Today, Bolstein said, white supremacists can find an “electronic basement” online, where they can meet frequently and anonymously. 

“That’s the worst part about it,” Bolstein said. “It’s out there; it’s under the surface. You can always see it, and then it pops up like it did with the Tree of Life synagogue shooting.”

It’s a bleak thought, and Bolstein once more turns to his Judaism to give him hope and energy to carry on: “I believe we’re here for a reason. … I’m here because God wants me where I am.”

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