Local coffee shop takes steps to make amends for antisemitic act of barista
Fighting antisemitism'No place for hate'

Local coffee shop takes steps to make amends for antisemitic act of barista

Squirrel Hill proprietors "deeply apologize" for incident

Lid of cup served to Hebrew speakers by employee of 61C on April 17. The employee is now on a leave of absence. (Courtesy photo)
Lid of cup served to Hebrew speakers by employee of 61C on April 17. The employee is now on a leave of absence. (Courtesy photo)

The manager of 61C Café in Squirrel Hill said he is “disappointed” and “embarrassed” by what some are deeming an antisemitic act committed by one of the café’s employees.

On Wednesday, a server working at the popular Murray Avenue coffee shop wrote “Free Palestine” on the lids of the beverage cups of one adult and three teens who were speaking Hebrew.

The café manager, who asked to be identified only as “Keith,” said that the server in question would be “taken off the schedule” until she could meet with Julie Paris, the regional director of StandWithUs Mid-Atlantic.

“I’m not going to put her on the schedule until I get confirmation from the community that they’re comfortable with her,” Keith said. “So we’re just in the process of handling this unfortunate event.”

After receiving the cups with the words “Free Palestine” written on them, the adult Hebrew speaker, “T” (who requested anonymity for security reasons), asked the server why she wrote those words. The server responded that the reason was because “you’re doing genocide,” T told the Chronicle.

T asked for a refund because the teens were not confident the beverages were safe to drink, T said.

The server refused to issue a refund. The dialogue became heated and another customer called the police.

When the police arrived and spoke to the server, T said, the Hebrew speakers were issued a refund for their beverages.

Keith said it’s important that all customers feel welcome at 61C, and he is disturbed by the event.

“I’m truly traumatized,” he said. “I’m not someone that wants to exclude anyone from coming in here. That’s just a capitalistic approach. Everyone’s welcome. I love that about the place. People come in and they have arguments and debates. But not this — I don’t know where that passive-aggression came from.”

Keith said it was unlikely that the server “knew the gravity” of her actions. That’s why he wanted her to meet with Paris.

Paris met with the server, Keith and 61C’s owners on Thursday.

Gary Kobaly, an owner of 61C, said in an email to the Chronicle that the barista was placed on a leave of absence.

In a written statement, the owners of 61C acknowledged that “one of our baristas engaged in a discriminatory act against a group of Hebrew speakers that rightly generated criticism and a loss of trust in our business. We deeply apologize for that and are more committed than ever to fostering a warm and welcoming community for all, regardless of religion, ethnicity, nationality, or political persuasion. This is a commitment we are making to you, our wonderful customers who have made us a fabric of your community and your lives for thirty years, and one that we look forward to being a part of in the decades to come.”

“On Thursday afternoon, 61C management and staff met with Jewish organizational leaders for a discussion,” the statement continued. “As we talked about the incident, we had the opportunity to learn more about the implications of our employee’s actions, and the severity of it. We all came in with open hearts and a desire to find ways to learn, foster community, and engage in dialogue when it is more important now than ever before. This is the type of dialogue that we are committed to providing at our cafe as well. We will not tolerate any forms of discrimination or hate speech, and will ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. The cafe feels remorse on what occurred and offers our deepest apologies. We’ve always strived to be apolitical, non-religious and supportive of diversity. We’re all in this together. “

Paris noted that the incident “highlights a growing trend of singling out and discriminating against Jews and Israelis based on one’s thoughts about Israel or the actions of the Israeli government.” She said she was “heartened that the 61C owners condemned the actions of the barista and are committed to holding their employee accountable.”

“The barista apologized and offered to take any necessary steps to correct the egregious decision to mistreat these customers,” Paris continued, adding that she met with both the owner and the employee “to offer education on contemporary antisemitism and Jewish identity, and I believe that they are prepared to take the necessary steps to regain the trust of the Jewish and Israeli communities in our area to make certain that Pittsburgh really is ‘stronger than hate.’”

Jeff Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, condemned the incident.

“The idea that someone would target a group of teenagers for speaking Hebrew and blame them for the actions of a foreign government is reprehensible and blatant antisemitism,” he said. “We have seen the Squirrel Hill neighborhood blanketed with signs saying, ‘No place for hate,’ and that should include everyone.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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