Day schools respond to racist remarks in election’s aftermath

Day schools respond to racist remarks in election’s aftermath

Sunday marked the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom that ushered in the Holocaust, and some local educators have used the occasion as a way to teach against racism.

They felt it was necessary, because emotions ran high this election season – and sometimes hit an ugly low.

According to Rabbi Yosef Adler, rosh yeshiva of Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, “in several schools where mock elections were held, students who voted for [Sen. Barack] Obama were accosted by students who voted for [Sen. John] McCain, asking, ‘How could you vote for that nigger?'” They also used the word “schvartze,” Adler said.

Rabbi Yosef Adler

The rabbi, who is the religious leader of Cong. Rinat Israel in Teaneck, said that “almost every school [where students used racist language] reacted.” He noted that Dr. Elliot Prager, principal of the Moriah School in Englewood, wrote a letter to parents about the issue, as did the lower school principal of Ramaz, in New York City.

Adler himself addressed racism “head on,” he said, “both in school and in shul on Shabbos.”

He chose to speak about it in shul, Adler said, because children are “getting it from their parents…. Kids, especially junior high school kids, probably heard this over the Shabbos lunch table. You just have to [make] the parents aware of it. Hopefully, they will do some thinking.”

Adler said he has been stressing that “many of the accomplishments and opportunities given to Orthodox Jews today are in no small measure attributable to the gains [made by] the African-American community…. I think there will be a change in attitude,” he added.

Prager specifically mentioned Kristallnacht, noting that it had been the “‘dress rehearsal’ for the Holocaust to come,” in the letter e-mailed to parents of the pre-k-through-eighth grade school’s 967 students. He expanded on the connection this week in several telephone interviews with The Jewish Standard.

“Particularly in light of the suffering and persecution of Jews,” he said, “we should be sensitive to the use of stereotypes and slandering of any ethnic or religious group.”

He stressed that he and other concerned principals had not been reacting to children’s expressions of “differences of opinion” but to “very clear sentiments voiced here and in schools around the area,” and “that in addition to anti-Obama sentiment there was anti-black sentiment.”

Like Adler, he felt that “there’s no question that in some cases it may come from parents, but in many cases, it may come from the larger society and what kids pick up.”

Dr. Elliot Prager

In his message to parents, he wrote, “I cannot help but wonder as to what we as a Jewish people have learned and internalized about the Holocaust; I cannot help but wonder if our concerns about prejudice and racism are valid only when it comes to our own people; I cannot help but wonder how we are supposed to succeed in our mission of teaching midot [positive traits] when so many children are apparently being exposed to unwarranted distortions of information based not on political biases, but biases which go to the very core of common decency and respect for our fellow human beings.”

In an interview with the Standard, he said, “What I do feel is most unfortunate is that I think there are parents that haven’t done a good job of explaining to their children their legitimate concerns and fears about Obama’s relationship to Israel. Instead of a parent saying it’s not clear what Obama’s support of Israel will be, you have kids coming to school and saying, ‘Obama hates Jews and is going to hurt us.'”

Rabbi Chaim Hagler, principal of Yeshivat Noam in Paramus and Bergenfield, has heard similar comments in the 550-student pre-k-through-seventh-grade school. But, he stressed, from only “a small handful.”

“We encourage the children to develop opinions about the candidates,” he said in a telephone interview, “but some opinions were based not on issues but on skin color.”

Some children had made “the common mistake that Obama is a Muslim” and concluded that he “therefore hates the Jewish people. Deciding a person’s character and whether they are a quality person based on race, [religion,] on color of skin – that’s the mistake that they’re making.”

Rabbi Chaim Hagler

And, he maintained, those children “don’t understand what they’re saying. They’re hearing things at home and mimicking them or sometimes repeating them out of context.”

As educators, Hagler said, “we have a responsibility to teach our students the difference between right and wrong, a duty to ensure that our children do not grow up to feel that it’s acceptable to dislike another human being simply because of the color of his or her skin.”

Hagler saw the Kristallnacht anniversary as “an opportunity to teach our children about the grave dangers that bigotry presents.” At an assembly that had already been planned for Monday, he made that connection for middle school students. “It was an unfortunate but educational moment,” he said.

Not all local day schools have reported students’ racially tinged comments. Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck has not experienced “anything overt,” according to Ruth Birnbaum, its assistant principal. She added that the school believes in fostering dialogue, and that “teachers are always ready to speak with students if issues come up.”

Ruth Gafni, principal of Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, said, “For us this was a non-issue.” The 500 students in the school’s pre-k to eighth grades “elected” Obama in the mock election, by two-thirds to one-third.

Like Adler, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood has sermonized about racism, once during the campaign and once after the election. It’s not, he was quick to stress in a telephone interview, that there is more racism in the Orthodox community “than in other populations.” But “feelings run very high, particularly when it comes to Israel and any perceived threats to Israel, and it brings out the worst when things like that happen.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin

He noted that “this was a very, very difficult presidential race for the Orthodox, for people for whom the situation in Israel is front and center,” and it evoked “a very strong fear of Israel’s vulnerability. There were lots of rumors flying around on the Internet and e-mails that I think were unsubstantiated and inflammatory…. There were lots of misconceptions out there.”

“If there’s fear in the air,” he continued, “you have to recognize the history. Our historical experience may lead us to distrust and fear [the other]. People have had [bad] experiences. There’s a lot of emotion here, and it doesn’t always lead to sober analysis and thought.”

On Shabbat, he said, he spoke about “the particular Jewish mission of being a light unto the nations – based on the inherent value of the ‘other’ and our role to mirror, in our lives, the kind of behavior [needed] to bring God and the love of God to the world.”

Also, he said, committed Jews – not only the Orthodox – face “a deep fundamental challenge: how to believe and teach the concept of chosenness without teaching exclusivity – that you have a particular mission to the world and at the same time that all human beings have value and that mission does not necessarily make you better than someone else.”

As for children, he said, “we have to consciously work to teach them the balance between our self-perception of mission and the perception of value of others.”

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