Our kids and anti-Semitism

Jewish high school students lead a presentation at Trinity Catholic High School as part of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Student to Student program.

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Yael Simon, 17, says the five-week trip she took two summers ago to Poland, Denmark and Israel far surpassed anything she had imagined. 

But what wasn’t so great was the plane ride from New York to Poland. Yael was traveling with 40 other Orthodox Jewish students from around the country on a program organized by JOLT (Jewish Opportunities and Learning for Teens). Seated in the section of the plane with the students were about 10 others, including a Polish man who became extremely agitated in the middle of the flight.

“He started screaming at us as loud as he could in Polish,” recalled Yael, a member of Young Israel who recently graduated from Block Yeshiva High School. “Another Polish man who was much nicer than him explained he was yelling horrible, horrible curse words, calling us ‘dirty Jews,’ saying how we should go back to our own country. 

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“The flight attendant tried to calm him down, but she couldn’t. He went on for more than 2½ hours, ranting at us. He just got angrier and angrier.  We had no idea what to do. It was really frightening. Then he went up to my friend, got right in her face and started threatening her. Finally, a couple of Polish guys removed him and took him to another section of the plane.”

Yael says that was the first time she had encountered any kind of anti-Semitism. She admits that she was naïve to think it didn’t exist but that “living in a bubble” in St. Louis had isolated her from those who hate or discriminate against Jews.

Yael’s experience didn’t occur here. But other Jewish young people have been the targets of anti-Semitism in St. Louis, often in school settings where there are few Jews. They can tell their stories in vivid detail because that’s the thing about being persecuted for who you are: As much as you may want to, you never really forget. 

Despite the indelible nature of the memories, the impact of anti-Semitism on youngsters can vary depending on how families, educators and counselors help them react to, and cope with, the incident. Even better, experts say, educating children at an early age, before bigotry confronts them, may help them to mitigate the consequences of prejudice and become more empathetic to others.

Reactions speak, as do words 

As early as age 3, children begin noticing differences among people, be it skin color, facial features, even their hair. 

“How parents deal with the situation, how they address those differences when it comes up, is critical,” said Tabari Coleman, St. Louis project director for the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference Institute, which offers anti-bias and inclusion training workshops for schools, community organizations and businesses.

“If a child points to someone in a wheelchair and starts asking questions, a parent could become embarrassed and shush the child. A lot of us don’t like having those ‘uncomfortable conversations.’ That sends a clear message something is wrong. If a parent explains that the person cannot walk and a wheelchair allows him to get around like the rest of us, that is a statement of fact. Where things get twisted is when we start stating our opinions rather than the facts. 

“How we respond at the moment determines how children learn and move forward,” Coleman said. “It can be positive or negative, depending on our reactions. Kids pick up on a lot of different things even without having a conversation, like our body language, our facial expressions, our tone.”

Marcie Handler remembers some neighbors she didn’t know circulating a petition not long after she and her family moved to the Chesterfield/Wildwood area about 20 years ago. 

“We moved here thinking it would be like Parkway Central in 15 years, but we were wrong,” she said, describing her area as “white, rich and predominantly Christian.” 

The petition was against building more reasonably priced housing in northeast Wildwood, on land that Daniel Boone had initially given to his slaves. Descendants continued to live there and wanted to build more affordable houses for their offspring. 

“My two older kids were about 3 and 5 at the time,” said Handler, a Neve Shalom congregant whose third and youngest child just graduated from Lafayette High School in the Rockwood School District. “These neighbors started explaining the petition. I remember them saying as soon as ‘those people’ start moving in, God help us all. My husband and I just looked at each other. We couldn’t say get the hell out of here, so we ushered them to the door and told them we didn’t agree and weren’t going to sign their petition.

“Our two kids stood there looking at us because they could see something big had happened. I told them right then that whenever someone says ‘those people,’ you have got to say something, take a stand. If anyone is discriminated against for anything, it’s your job to help because it could be you one day.”

Handler says each of her three children had brushes with anti-Semitism during middle and high school. Her oldest daughter “went after anyone” who bullied kids regardless of whether they were Jewish, African-American, Hispanic or Asian, or for any other reason. 

“She would report incidents to her (Rockwood Valley) middle school counselor and the school handled it beautifully,” Handler said. 

The incidents that touched her daughter, who just graduated from Lafayette, usually were subtle and probably not intended to be hurtful. But intent and outcome can be very different, Handler said.

“She had gone with her school over spring break to New Orleans to help Habitat for Humanity build houses,” Handler said. “The (administrator) in charge was very religious. She told the kids that the first activity the next day would be church, and if they couldn’t make church, well then God bless them.” 

Another teacher, Handler says, had a sign in his office that said: “I’ll forgive Jane Fonda when the Jews forgive Hitler.” He was asked to cover it up, and did so.

Handler jokes that she became an excellent letter writer and caller to Rockwood administrators. When she heard of anti-Semitism incidents or any kind of discrimination from her children, she immediately brought it to the attention of the school administration. 

“My message has always been consistent: As a school district, your job is to make sure every kid is represented and feels comfortable despite their religion, their race, their nationality, their ethnicity or their sexual orientation,” she said.

Desi Kirchhofer, deputy superintendent of the Parkway School District agrees, adding that educating children about discrimination is a “shared responsibility” between parents and the school. 

“We teach world religions not to indoctrinate, but so our students understand the values and cultures of others,” he said. “That is the role of public education in a democracy. It is built on the foundation of an acceptance of others.”

But Kirchhofer admits that sometimes communication breaks down, such as it did in 2008 when sixth-graders at Parkway West Middle School instituted “Hit a Jew Day” as part of an unofficial school spirit week. Many of those sixth-graders just graduated from Parkway West High School, where one of the graduation student speakers talked about how the “Hit a Jew Day” incident shaped the identity of an entire class.

“He said, ‘We started our careers at West Middle in a negative way, and we had to learn from our mistake,’ ” Kirchhofer related. “Obviously, at the time seven years ago, that particular group really had more dialogue about being careful with your actions and your language, and understanding they have consequences.” 

Handler says she sometimes wonders whether the consequences of moving to an area with few Jewish families was the right decision. She recently posed the question to her children. 

“My older daughter told me, ‘Mom, if we hadn’t moved out here, we wouldn’t have learned to advocate as well. I wouldn’t have joined (Jewish) youth groups and made such good friends.’ And it’s true,” Handler said. “My kids do know how to advocate so much better than others because they had to do it from an early age.”

Engaged parenting works

Coleman, of the ADL’s World of Difference, believes proactive parenting can make a positive difference in how a child deals with discrimination. 

“You really don’t want a child to confront anti-Semitism or bigotry and not know what to do,” he said.

Petra Levin, a biology professor at Washington University, said that after her daughter, who just finished fourth grade at New City School, read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the two sat down and talked about how Jews were singled out for their differences. 

“We’re also using what’s going on in the world, like in Ferguson, to talk about differences,” she said. “We were driving down Kingshighway and she saw that a cop had pulled over, and was talking to, an African-American man. She asked if the man was being picked on because of his race.”

Rosalind Wiseman, a nationally known educator and author who has written several books on bullying and ethical leadership, suggests parents have regular, age-appropriate conversations with their children about the value of treating all people with dignity. Using current events such as Ferguson and Baltimore, as well as global anti-Semitism, can help jump start the conversation, she says. But she cautions parents against lecturing or talking in platitudes about racism and bigotry, advising instead to speak authentically and rely on facts.

“A parent can prepare a conversation that at most lasts three minutes,” said Wiseman, who is based in Boulder, Colorado. “You can say, ‘I don’t know if you are witnessing people being racist, or using the N-word, or saying Jew in a derogatory way, or making jokes about Hispanics, but none of this is OK. This is not how we treat people. Our family respects people of different races and religions and orientations and treats them with kindness.’ ”

Wiseman also encourages parents to model behavior they want their children to emulate. 

“So if you hear a joke that’s racist or sexist or offensive, instead of laughing to be hospitable, try saying, ‘Why would you say something like that?’ We may laugh because we don’t want to have that uncomfortable conversation, but then we’re only contributing to the problem.”

Wiseman and Coleman also suggest that parents familiarize themselves with how their child’s school addresses issues of bigotry and prejudice. 

“We hear the term ‘diversity’ thrown out and overused,” Coleman said. “When I am thinking diversity,  it’s about how we create inclusive spaces where everyone feels they belong.” 

Wiseman said: “If a school believes that the way children learn is to feel emotionally safe … (then) if the school walks them through (their) mistakes in a way that truly teaches them and gets them to hold themselves accountable, then that’s the school that will make a difference.” 

Proactive intervention

In St. Louis, there are avenues for help that support parents and teachers. The ADL’s World of Difference Institute worked with more than 3,500 people as part of school groups, nonprofits, community organizations and businesses last year. Coleman explains that he customizes programs to fit the needs and challenges of an organization depending on what that group hopes to accomplish. Certain programs allow him to work with entire schools while others focus on professional development with teachers. Even though the ADL charges a fee, Coleman says it is willing to work with groups that cannot afford the cost.

Student to Student, started by the Jewish Community Relations Council in 1992, brings Jewish high school students from the St. Louis area to schools that lack a Jewish presence. The idea is that by hearing from, and asking questions of, their Jewish peers, non-Jewish students will have a better understanding of what Judaism is about. This past school year, 30 Student to Student groups reached more than 4,000 non-Jewish students, according to Fawn Chapel, who coordinates the program for the JCRC.

Student to Student participant Andrew Adler, 18, is a Modern Orthodox student who attends Young Israel and just graduated from Crossroads College Preparatory School.

“I’ve gotten asked pretty much every question you can think of, from whether I’ve ever eaten a McDonald’s cheeseburger to why I wear that thing on my head to if it’s OK to celebrate birthdays,” he said. “The most rewarding thing is that some of these students may not have known a Jewish person before they met us. They don’t know what kosher is or the difference between being a Reform Jew or Orthodox or Conservative.

“By the time we are done talking, they seem to understand that Judaism isn’t some crazy thing like some people make it out to be, and it’s nothing to be feared. We’re normal kids, just like them.”

Adler came to Crossroads as a freshman after attending Jewish day school in Columbus, Ohio. At first, he wore a baseball cap instead of his kippah to school because he said he didn’t want to answer questions about his head covering. Now, he says, he not only doesn’t mind answering questions about his Judaism, he actually welcomes them.

“My Judaism gives me a sense of belonging and pride,” he said. “I’ve also been lucky with how supportive Crossroads has been. I play baseball and, this year, my coach made sure not to schedule one game on the Sabbath, so I didn’t have to miss anything.”

Adler’s mother believes Crossroads’ commitment to diversity has helped strengthen her son’s engagement with Judaism. She also was pleased with how the school handled an incident involving her daughter, who was in ninth grade, and some other girls who got into a heated discussion about Israel in a World Civilization class.

“The conversation evolved to where some of the girls asked (my daughter) how she could defend what was happening in Israel,” Ruth Pack-Adler said. “Andrew jumped in. They emailed teachers, the school counselor and asked for a meeting. The school agreed immediately and sat down with the parties involved and had a nice, respectful conversation where they agreed to disagree. We have to respect that we have different opinions, but it’s important to have information behind you so you can speak knowledgeably on the subject.”

In the hopes of furthering the discourse, Andrew Adler helped establish a Jewish Student Union at Crossroads. The JSU of St. Louis was created in 2003 at Ladue Horton Watkins High School “to get more Jewish teens attending high schools to do something Jewish.” Today it has programs in 12 area high schools, including an active chapter at Pattonville High, where there are few Jewish students.

JSU is also a partner in the Danforth Israel Scholars Program, which helps high school students learn about the Jewish State from a historical and modern perspective. 

“You don’t have to be Jewish to be involved in JSU,” said Sam Zitin, who, along with Rabbi Michael Rovinsky, oversees the JSU program. “We talk about issues that are relevant to all teens from a Jewish perspective but hopefully have a universal message.”

Zitin says that while anti-Semitic incidents at area schools haven’t been a big topic of discussion lately, he is hearing concerns from JSU students about global anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses.

“The kids are having a tough time seeing the separation between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel,” he said. “They have questions as to why (anti-Israel protests are) happening and if they should be worried. They have real sense that the mainstream American news media is not really reflecting the anti-Semitic nature of what is going on.”