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New Hampshire town readies to vote on renaming Jew Pond

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March 12, 2012: Ice partially covers the surface of Jew Pond in Mont Vernon, N.H. (AP)

For many long-time residents of this rural town, the quest to change the name of Jew Pond is much ado over a muddy, manmade body of water not used for much of anything besides ice skating and fishing. For more recent transplants and the town's health officer, though, it's a way to banish an offensive title that's recorded on at least one official map.

Mont Vernon's approximately 2,400 residents will have a chance to vote Tuesday at a town meeting on whether to ask the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to officially change the Jew Pond moniker, which appears on a 1968 map but not on any town signs.

Town officials say Jew Pond, which is what most people call it, got its name in the 1920s. Town health officer Rich Masters recently took up the cause to change the name after it appeared in a news report about an algae bloom there.

"I, frankly, find it to be inappropriate, disrespectful to some people," he said, "and I feel it needs to be changed."

Over the years, the pond, near the center of town, has been called by many names, including Carleton Pond. A nearby sign says Carleton Park Recreation Area, though that refers to the land rather than the pond itself. The pond originally was named Spring Pond, said Masters, because the owners of a hotel there created it by digging up a spring to irrigate their golf course. They made clear in a brochure that Jewish guests were not welcome.

The rest of the story is a bit murky, but it's generally believed that the body of water became Jew Pond when two Jewish businessmen from Boston bought the hotel. They intended to make the pond bigger and rename it Lake Serene, town officials say.

"That was when Jews were openly discriminated against," Masters said, saying the Jew Pond name could not have been anything but pejorative.

But Mont Vernon Historical Society member Zoe Fimbel, who has lived in the town for 31 years, said there's nothing bigoted about the Jew Pond name. She said it was more about long-time residents in the 1920s being annoyed by out-of-towners trying to turn the pond into something it was not.

"It's too bad it's gotten to be such an issue when it's never even referred to or portrayed in a negative way," she said. "It's more like, `It's the Jew's Pond. The new man in town."'

She said she's been surprised by the flap and finds it ironic that one of the proposed alternate names, Frog Pond, could be offensive to French people.

"It's really too bad how so few people make a fuss and change things that the majority wants," she said. "Now it's whoever has the loudest voice and doesn't give up. ... We're being so generic and afraid to be who we are."

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that says it was founded in 1913 "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all," sees it differently.

ADL regional director Derrek L. Shulman wrote a letter to the chairman of the town's Board of Selectmen asking for a name change.

"The very name `Jew Pond' triggers memories of a time in our past that we can learn from -- but ought not to perpetuate," he wrote. "This represents an opportunity to send a message to the rest of the world that Mont Vernon is a place of inclusion and respect."

But Mont Vernon also is a town proud of its history, the main reason locals argue to keep the pond's name. Just a quarter-mile from the pond is a familiar monument in all New England towns, honoring the town's veterans from as far back as the 47 who fought in the American Revolution.

The town, about 35 miles southwest of the state capital, Concord, has Jewish residents, but census data don't indicate how many. The only synagogue Masters said he knew about is in Nashua, about 15 miles away. Proposed names for the pond, he said, include Carleton Pond and the original Spring Pond.

Many residents appear surprised by the kerfuffle and place it low on their list of priorities. It is Article 12 on a list of 15 for Tuesday's town meeting, appearing after issues such as the purchase of a new pickup for the highway department and the repair or replacement of a dry fire hydrant.

People enjoying sunny weather and warm temperatures in town on Monday had mixed reaction to the proposal to change Jew Pond's name.

"It's part of the town's history," said Brenda Bishop, who has lived in Mont Vernon for 40 years and was working at Fishbone's General Store.

She said she feels officials have better things to worry about. Giving the pond a different name, she said, "wouldn't be a problem, I just don't understand the issue of wanting to change it."

But Mary Katherine McNamara, who moved to town three years ago and has lived in Israel and in New York, which has a large Jewish population, said she's offended by the Jew Pond name even though she isn't Jewish.

"If they want to use a historic name," she said, "they should go back to Spring Pond."

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