Woodstock Human Rights Commission aims to help

Anula Courtis, Dr. Debra Adair, and Bowie, the cat. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

This year, December 10, the nation’s annual Human Rights Day, marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly. The newly formed Woodstock Human Rights Commission (HRC) has chosen this week to make the community aware of its functions, developed and honed over the past eight months of its existence.

It turns out Woodstock was a part-time home for policy intellectual James T. Shotwell, whose accomplishments include editing the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and playing a key role in the addition of the Declaration of Human Rights to the UN Charter. If the name Shotwell sounds familiar, it’s because he owned a house at the end of Shotwell Road, which joins Meads Mountain Road opposite California Quarry.


Woodstock supervisor Bill McKenna described the inspiration for the creation of the town’s HRC. “In the spring of 2017, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and [Pastor] Sonja Maclary of the Lutheran Church came to see me. We had a conversation about how to make Woodstock an even friendlier place.” Then McKenna was approached by members of Woodstock Immigrant Support, a group discussing sanctuary cities and protection of immigrants, in the face of the Federal administration’s increasingly restrictive policies on immigration. As a result, McKenna put together a task force that included Kligler, Maclary, police chief Clayton Keefe, and representatives of Family of Woodstock, the social services organization. County legislator Jonathan Heppner put into words the concept of the HRC, which emerged from those meetings.  

The Commission, which was formed this past spring, is composed of Chairperson Anula Courtis, Vice Chair Salvador Altamirano-Segura, Bonnie Wagner, Laura Kaplan, Dr. Debra Adair, and Urana Kinlen. Several people have applied for a position that is currently open. 

The HRC has been given three charges. Their first task is advocating for individuals who believe their human rights have been violated by a town employee. Courtis emphasized that the group’s purview does not extend to mistreatment by people who do not work for the town, nor for organizations associated with Woodstock. But if someone feels their rights have been trespassed upon by anyone from the town board, the police or fire department, or other town departments, they can contact the HRC, which will review their issue and, if it has merit, work through the town board to mediate a resolution.

“At one meeting,” said McKenna, “a member talked about a neighbor who’s an immigrant from a Scandinavian country. He’s been here 20 years, but he wouldn’t feel comfortable coming to speak to the town government if he had a problem. This gives people a middleman, a more comfortable spot to speak privately.”

Another task of the HRC is to make policy recommendations to the town board from a human rights perspective. “The Commission is looking at a policy for the police department,” said McKenna, “how they would do stops and treat people. The police chief will meet with them at least once a year to review the policies.” The HRC will seek comments from the Civil Liberties Union before putting proposed policy in front of the town board with a recommendation for adoption. They also plan to look at policies that affect people who are poor and/or homeless.

Finally, the HRC is meant to serve as a resource for community education, co-sponsoring programs, workshops, and celebrations. In June, it joined Woodstock Immigrant Support and the Worker Justice Center of New York at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center for a community forum on the history of U.S. immigration policy and what a fair and just immigration policy might entail. HRC will have a role in the third annual Woodstock Women’s March, of which Courtis is a co-founder and organizer. It will be held on January 19, 2019.

On Friday, December 14, at 6 p.m., members of the HRC will provide information on their goals at a Human Rights Shabbat service at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. The event is held annually in observance of Human Rights Day and is sponsored by the nation-wide organization T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. T’ruah’s website describes its purpose as “bring[ing] together rabbis and cantors from all streams of Judaism, together with all members of the Jewish community, to act on the Jewish imperative to respect and advance the human rights of all people.”

Rabbi Kligler explained, “We will be marking the event with a talk by our student rabbi, Lily Solochek. Lily is a committed human rights activist, among many other attributes. We will also read the preamble of the Declaration and a few of its principles, and sing a song that speaks to its themes.” He quoted Rev. Matthew Wright of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, who referred to the Declaration as “modern sacred scripture.” Kligler continued, “I also want everyone to be aware of the direct connection between the declaration in Genesis — “God created the human being in the Divine image” — and the subsequent understanding that every human being has inherent dignity and every human life has incalculable value. I consider these ancient Jewish principles to be the precursors to our modern understanding of human rights.”

McKenna does not expect the HRC to have much work to do in the area of individual advocacy. “We’re lucky to live in a community with great employees, so there are not an enormous amount of issues. I don’t think an individual case has come up yet, but it sets the tone and sets the bar for other communities.”

James T. Shotwell would be proud of his town.

To reach the Woodstock Human Rights Commission, call 845-679-2113, ext.17; email WHRC@woodstockny.org; or write to Woodstock Human Rights Commission, 45 Comeau Drive, Supervisor’s Office, Woodstock, NY 12498. On Friday, December 14, at 6 p.m., the public is invited to the Human Rights Shabbat service at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, 1682 Glasco Turnpike, Woodstock.

James T. Shotwell

Excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Everyone has the right to education.

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.

Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. 

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Everyone has the right to a nationality.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.