Antisemitism & Jewish Education
May 28th, 2021 | 17th of Sivan, 5781 | Beha'alotcha
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
Over the last few weeks there have been a series of antisemitic incidents in our city and country. Some of these incidents reflect an uptick in antisemitism connected to American politics as it has been evolving over the past several years, especially as related to partisan polarization; and some of these incidents are clearly impelled and emboldened by the emergence of hostilities and violence in Israel.
Of course, antisemitism has no rational cause, and the importance of vigilance against antisemitism, and the efforts needed to fight against it, do not require us to justify or explain why it has come about. And yet for all of us, this turn of events -- and especially the violence and incendiary rhetoric close to home -- is very upsetting. We are probably living in the safest time in Jewish history and one of the safest places for Jews in the world, so when things happen in our backyard -- whether in Pittsburgh, Monsey, Brooklyn or the Upper East Side -- it is profoundly unsettling and puts us all on edge. Our people know from experience to take these sorts of incidents seriously. In fact, we know more than that: we know that until each of us is safe, none of us is safe. I mean that with respect to the Jewish people and with respect to all distinct minorities.
At the same time, we struggle with the question of how to bring the conversation about antisemitism into the bubble of our school. Beit Rabban is imagined and intentionally designed as an environment that cultivates emotional safety for our students, and a place for our students to develop their pride and confidence as Jews. Our school takes pride in the atmosphere we create every day where children are conditioned to sign tefillot (prayers) at the top of their lungs without worrying about how they are seen; to live confidently and competently as Jews in the world without constraining our behavior because of how others might judge us. Beit Rabban takes seriously the idea that living Jewishly is based on commitments that we proudly undertake, and not just the result of being “other” to the nations of the world.
Nevertheless, our school does take seriously the role that antisemitism has played in the history of our people, and we reckon in developmentally-appropriate ways with both the ways it has shaped our history and the ways it must inform our future. Our youngest students encounter six yahrzeit candles as they enter the building on Yom HaShoah, placed there intentionally for all to see. As children develop the ability to better contextualize historically in fourth grade, we begin to explore antisemitism more intentionally by introducing a new Holocaust novel every year. In middle school, students discuss antisemitism in the context of studying immigration quotas and unfair treatment, when studying the Spanish inquisition, and finally when engaging in a Holocaust and human behavior unit that digs deep into roots of antisemitism. Our students are encouraged as well to understand and develop an empathetic appreciation for the sources of hatred and bias that affect other populations, and this is always done with an understanding of the unique capacity and responsibility of the Jewish people to translate the experience of our oppression - “you were slaves in the land of Egypt” - into an empowered empathy. And finally, our students bear witness every day to the need for security personnel outside our building.
Even as we broach all sorts of difficult conversations with our children, and we consider historical antisemitism, we also act very delicately in considering whether to expose our students to antisemitism that is proximate. We care for our children’s emotional safety as well as our own; we know they hear about events around them at home; and we are concerned that the foregrounding of these incidents will create more anxiety than it will serve as educationally productive.
For these reasons, we have not directly discussed the recent acts of anti-semitism in New York City with our students below sixth grade. If they bring it up, teachers will engage. But if they do not, we are not ready to cause them any more immediate anxiety. Families, of course, will choose what and how to share these things with their children and will make vastly different decisions based on their circumstances, that is very different than making a choice for an entire group of children.
Our commitment to you as parents is to try as best we can to communicate our thinking in real time about our educational choices, even in a rapidly evolving and sometimes fraught political and social environment. At present, we believe that our educational choices on how to teach the Jewish experience of vulnerability best captures the dynamic at the heart of a Beit Rabban education, which affirms the optimism of the Jewish condition and invests in the emotional health of our students. I am happy to hear your thoughts on this.
May we know better days.
Wishing all a restful and rejuvenating Shabbat,