Giving Space to learn about Hate

Teachers and students and all Americans are still recovering from last week’s Capitol’s assault. My high school students and I have had several conversations about the events of January 6th in the past week. We’ve spoken about the anger that we’ve experienced in the past few days, and many students have spent a good deal of time talking about their feelings in class. Because I am a visual arts teacher, we looked at images from the day and discussed the essential role of these photographs in how the public reacted to the invasion. I have been proud of the classroom conversations that are occurring, but I have been unable to completely say what I have been thinking in my own head. My identity as a Jew has added weight onto my shoulders that I haven’t been able to lift in our class discussions. The White supremacists in DC displayed the antisemitism that is a major platform of almost every hate group in our country. Its been hard to introduce antisemitism to my classes, not because my students are not empathetic and wonderful (because they are), but because most of my students have never heard of Judaism, let alone the centuries-old problem of antisemitism.

My children have been enrolled in RPS for 12 years, longer than my teaching career here. Being a Jewish parent with 2 Jewish children has been lonely at best, and at its worst, it has been harmful to our lives. My daughters have been 2 of a handful of Jews and non-Christians at their schools. Christianity has been front and center in my daughters’ school environment and it has definitely been hard on our family. My kids have experienced the burden of having to explain to their teachers why they need to be absent for major Jewish holidays, and they have survived numerous Christmas seasons in which they witnessed their religion reduced to Chanukah coloring pages and a dreidel song in assemblies. RPS, for the most part has been a wonderful learning environment for both of my children. They have grown into amazing teenagers with the much-cherished help of their teachers. I started my RPS teaching career because I was eager to be a part of this professional community. With great respect, I ask that on behalf of all Jewish families that RPS serves, it is time we learn about Judaism…not only because of the safety of our students, but so we can work towards a world free from hate.

First some basic information about Jews. Its hard to classify us…we are a bit confusing. Judaism is not a race and its not an ethnicity. Although 80% of Jews are white, there are Jews that identify with many different races, ethnicities, and origins. There are genetic similarities among some Jewish populations because for most of our histories, Jews were segregated from other populations and forbidden to intermarry. Throughout my life, I have had many people tell me that “I don’t look Jewish” and have had my curly hair called a “Jew Fro”. Again, Jews do not share physical characteristics. We don’t all have big noses and curly hair. These assumptions come from anti-semitism. Judaism is not a class- there are Jews in all classes. Despite the myths that may have heard, Jews are not all rich. I am a public school teacher (aka not rich). Judaism is not even completely a religion. You can be Jewish and be non-practicing. Its confusing even for Jews. The essential key term I use when talking about any group of people is “internal diversity”. Just like all groups of people, Jews do not work as a monolith, we are all individual humans with individual relationships with Judaism. The one thing we all have in common, is that we want everyone to fight against hate, ignorance, and prejudice. We need your help.

Here is a very quick introduction to antisemitism. The US State Department’s definition is this: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” There will be links to some more in-depth information to follow. Although the Holocaust and other horrible events of destruction are part of Jewish history and are essential learning, Jews are much more than the victims of the Holocaust. Learn about our joy along with our sorrow.

In 2019, the latest year of collected data, Jews accounted for 1.7% of the US population. Even though the population is so small, according to the FBI, 60.2% of religious hate crimes were committed against Jews in 2019. Ant-semitism is the oldest form of organized hatred. Ever since Jews were expelled from Ancient Judea (modern Israel) in 70 AD, we have been subject to harmful myths and characterizations that have lead to violence and terror. My family fled to the US from Russia to escape from government-led pogroms (terror attacks) that Russian Jews were experiencing during the 1880s and 1890s. Jews in every country have been oppressed and have been used as scapegoats, being blamed for a menu of societal issues from economic downturns, to Communist invasions. Its hard to talk about Jewish history without talking about the Holocaust (Capital H), a genocide of massive scope that has defined modern Jewish history and the history of humanity. (There are links at the end of this article for further reading. I cannot write about the Holocaust with any depth in this short piece). Jews are even at the center of contemporary conspiracy theories like the Illuminati and the New World Order. Jews do not control the world. We are too busy being regular people to fit world domination into our schedule.

Here’s how you can help. I want my daughters and all of our students to feel completely included in their school communities. As a parent, it is hurtful to watch teachers and administrators assuming that my girls celebrate Christmas and Easter and know what “Church Clothes” are. I want teachers to know about Judaism and also about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikkhism…because I don’t want any kids to be penalized when they need to be absent for holy days. I want kids to feel comfortable in classrooms that do not just tokenize our holidays, but are environments where all identities are respected. I don’t think that my children have been targets of antisemitism in any overt way as students in RPS. They have had the privilege of having amazing teachers and friends who have been supportive and loving. The problem comes with unconscious bias and the fact that most teachers “Don’t Know What They Don’t Know”. We don’t know that we are insulting or disrespecting or excluding our students because we don’t know enough about their backgrounds. Its time for us to learn. Don’t assume that you know everything about your students. My daughters were quiet when their teachers were excluding them because they didn’t want to single themselves out. They were embarrassed to point out their differences. Ask your students about their identities. It is not a taboo subject. Its essential.

As a 20-year veteran teacher, I have shared my identity with my students, just as I have spent time learning about their identities as well. They have asked some pretty amazing questions about an unfamiliar topic, and at the very least, they are starting to notice the vast diversity of people, beliefs, and experiences that they do not know about and have a lifetime to learn. I want my students to learn about subjects that are beyond their own identities because its how we as teachers build empathy and understanding. Its how we protect our children from being prejudiced and from unknowingly perpetrating harm. Last week’s display of hate (and for the displays of hate that date back centuries in the US) had many dimensions to it. We need to learn and listen to all of the many diverse perspectives that are accessible to us in our classroom and community.

Very basic overview of Judaism:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/

Overall introduction to antisemitism:

The history of antisemitism:

https://www.ushmm.org/antisemitism/what-is-antisemitism/why-the-jews-history-of-antisemitism

The definition of genocide:

An essential teacher’s resource for learning and teaching about hate

Addressing classroom bias and identity inclusion

https://inclusiveva.org/- Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities

Holocaust resources and learning: start with these

https://www.vaholocaust.org/ — Richmond’s Holocaust Museum- tours, teacher programs, access to survivor stories from people in Virginia and the Richmond area specifically

https://www.ushmm.org/- United States Holocaust Museum

Information about how to teach about Religion in public schools. This was an amazing teacher program in which I learned how to address this controversial subject and how to look at Religion in a more inclusive way.

https://rpl.hds.harvard.edu/

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