The incident at Mother Earth’s

William Sullivan’s arrest photo. (State police)

A recent allegation of anti-Semitism at a local business with deep roots in the community has sparked social media outrage, calls for a boycott, a visit from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and an arrest.

Now, the owner of Mother Earth’s Storehouse said that the company is taking action to shore up their anti-harassment and discrimination policies. Meanwhile, Mother Earth’s co-owner Kevin Schneider said that he believed both the incident and management’s handling of it had been misrepresented.

“We definitely do not tolerate hate speech in any way,” said Schneider. “There is a lot of misinformation about how this was handled.”


The incident occurred at Mother Earth’s location in the King’s Mall in the Town of Ulster on March 11. According to a statement released by her attorney, 18-year-old Sarah Shabanowitz was in a walk-in cooler getting items to restock shelves when co-worker Will Sullivan, 20, approached. Shabanowitz said Sullivan stood outside the cooler, shut off the light and said, “Now we’re going to put you in the gas chamber.” Shabanowitz said that when Sullivan saw her look of shock at his comment, he continued, “Yeah, you fucking Jew.”

According to her lawyer’s statement, Shabanowitz immediately reported the incident to an assistant store manager. Management, she said, spoke to Sullivan, who then delivered what she considered an insincere apology. The pair continued to work together in the store’s produce section. The next day, Shabanowitz said, she related the incident to Schneider and told him that she believed management had not responded to her concerns or taken any steps to make her feel safe. Shabanowitz claims that Schneider responded nonchalantly, “My friends have called me worse.”

On March 13, Shabanowitz said, an assistant manager informed her that she would be moved out of the produce section. Shabanowitz added that the manager told her not to say anything about the incident. The same day, Shabanowitz said, Sullivan sought her out and confronted her angrily for “making him look bad.” Shabanowitz said that she reported the confrontation to management and went home early because she was upset. Two days later, on March 15, Shabanowitz said that she was called into a meeting where an assistant manager took her to task for supposedly telling co-workers that Sullivan was an anti-Semite.

“You made him out to be a bad guy,” Shabanowitz said the assistant manager told her. “He was just making a joke. There have been times when I’ve said stuff like that.”

Shabanowitz said that the manager then informed her that she would be working at the register. When she became upset and asked to leave early, Shabanowitz said, she was told to either get to work or be fired. She was also warned again not to discuss the incident. After a phone conversation with her mother, Shabanowitz said, she left the store and did not return. Shabanowitz claimed that Sullivan remained employed by the store until after word of the incident began to circulate on social media.

In the same statement, attorney Ilann M. Maazel said that Mother Earth’s management had badly bungled the handling of the incident. Maazel wrote that Shabanowitz would pursue “every available remedy” in response to the store’s handling of her complaint.

“Mother Earth’s response was a perfect example of how not to respond to a complaint of workplace harassment,” Maazel wrote. “They did nothing to keep Sarah safe, they belittled anti-Semitism in the workplace and they told Sarah to keep quiet. The problem at Mother Earth is not just the employee; it is the management.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo and acting State Police Superintendent Keith Corlett came to Ulster County to announce the arrest (Governor’s Office)

Community response

Word of the incident began to spread after Shabanowitz’s mother posted about it on social media. Within a few days, there were calls to boycott the store and, according to Schneider, a flood of angry and sometimes threatening emails and phone calls. Shabanowitz, meanwhile, relayed her account to the Ulster County Jewish Federation and filed a formal complaint against Sullivan with the state police. On Friday, March 22, Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a press conference at the state police barracks on Route 209 to tout Sullivan’s arrest on a charge of second-degree aggravated harassment, a Class A misdemeanor. 

Jewish Federation spokesman Geoffrey Miller said the group was taking the incident at Mother Earth’s seriously in light of a rising tide of anti-Semitism locally, including recent allegations that Hurley’s highway superintendent had directed anti-Semitic language at a town employee.

“I have lived in Ulster County since 1971 and there has always been anti-Semitism on some level,” said Miller. “But in terms of stuff bubbling to the surface, showing up on the front page, there’s definitely been an increase.”

Miller said that he saw the federation’s role as not only offering aid and comfort to victims of anti-Semitism, but teaching employers and others how to better address the issue. Miller said the group had helped facilitate a meeting between management at Mother Earth’s, a local rabbi and members of the Ulster County Interfaith Council. 

“The community needs to be educated in terms of what anti-Semitism is, it takes many forms, it does not have to mean,” said Miller. “But however it is meant on the part of the person who does it, it does not land well with the Jewish community.” 

Changes promised

Schneider said his company has undertaken a number of changes in response to the incident and its aftermath, including hiring a human resources firm. The firm, he said, would revamp the employee handbook, take over employee anti-harassment training, ensure compliance with state guidelines on discrimination and harassment and handle other HR functions previously done in-house. Schneider said all employees would have to take a state-sponsored online class on harassment issues, while an outside consultant would do a series of in-person sensitivity workshops for staff.

But, Schneider said, he believed some parts of the story that have emerged on social media and in the press were misleading — both about the incident itself and the company’s handling of the complaint. Schneider declined to go into specifics, citing potential litigation. 

“I’ve just been trying to sell good products and do good things for 41 years, I always thought of us as an asset to the community,” said Schneider. “This has been a real learning experience.”

There are 15 comments

  1. County Taxpayer

    Co-owner with his brother Christian Schneider.
    And it’s “Mother Earth Storehouse” on the label, but not on the tax-records, where its “Mother Earth, Inc.”

    Makes me think of the Jewish Defense League in their hey-day?

    Nice to the Guv on the move.

  2. impeach cuomo

    Cuomo really an idiot, should be impeached.

    More concerned with this while new york citizens arrested and jailed by police for marijuana,

    Their should be an executive order to legalize marijuana in new york.

    Cuomo will never legalize marijuana, he will talk about it but never actually do it.

  3. Bruce of the Hudson Valley

    Mother Earth Storehouse mishandled this incident and that is why it had to escalate.
    Making an example of a business that out of ignorance and a lack of concern for an employee had to happen as a result. All businesses should be put on notice that this kind of behavior is not to be tolerated here in the Hudson Valley or anywhere else in this country.

  4. Keitha Oshea

    This is so sickening…bullying in the workplace is grounds for termination. We can thank our current President for this rise in racism and violence against religious groups. Glad she contacted an attny.

  5. Nechama Yehudit

    Great that Mother Earth is now attempting to make changes to the culture of the store. Starts at the top. Still, you’ve lost me as a customer. #dobetter #antisemitism

  6. Penny

    I think it’s really good to see our government and community taking on anti-semitism and showing zero tolerance for hateful and thoughtless remarks and actions. I really hope that everyone of any persuasion or religion will recognize the deeply ingrained biases that come with their beliefs and confront those as well. When everyone decides to put aside their biases and faulty religious and cultural tenets as well as judgements, the World can really start to live in harmony.

  7. Michael

    Never liked this overpriced store in the first place. They handled this poorly and they know it! Asset to the community? Assets make peoples lives better, you sir do not! Same healthy food at chain stores at half the price. Ripping off customers and embracing hate until your exposed. Hopefully this the beginning of the end for your crap store.

  8. Carl Frankel

    Of all the missteps in this sad story (the clueless kid, the management stumbles, Sarah’s lawyer with her megaphone, Cuomo’s grandstanding), the one I find by far the most appalling is the holier-than-thou righteous indignation that has rained down on Mother Earth in the form of comments like “they should go out of business.” This story is a complex and nuanced one, but never mind that, show no mercy to the bastids!

    Rage is all the rage these days. I find it ugly and frightening.

    1. Father Time

      You must have missed the article about the Woodstock photographer who documented the Civil Rights Era? It included a black and white photo of 20 or so Blacks sitting down in front of a white-man’s store, a white man who was standing in the shadows of the front door of his business looking at the back of the heads of all those sitting before him on the side-walk. Kristalnacht was just the opposite when it took place in Germany as part of the prelude to World War and the Holocaust.
      Then there was….

      1. Carl Frankel

        Are you suggesting that my post neglects history? On the contrary, it is steeped in it. Human history is the story of love versus hate. Take a wild guess which side I’m on.

  9. Lexi Kahan

    This newspaper story is about an alleged incident of anti-semitism, with a small “s”. Bigotry and racism are different than anti-semitism. Anti-semitism is a disease.

Comments are closed.