Over the past few weeks, many news outlets have been following the controversies brewing at several elite private schools in New York and Los Angeles, including a Jewish day school in the city, centering on the response of these schools to teaching anti-racism. It has divided school communities, led one Head of School to resign, and, in my opinion, has distracted from the real work that needs to be done. Unfortunately this is a topic that triggers so many people that it prevents honest and open conversations.
Our discomfort cannot be a reason to avoid the topic. Schools and parents need to engage respectfully in order for schools to be able to teach our children as objectively as humanly possible and in a manner that reflects our collective values and the best of us. As educators and as parents we must find ways to give our children the tools and courage to do better than us. Let’s look to Torah for some guidance.
In last week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim we learned, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” and “Let the stranger who lives among you be like your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt.” This week, in our Torah portion, Emor, we are admonished, “Do not desecrate My holy name. I must be sanctified among the Israelites. I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord.”
The Torah reminds us over and over again that we were strangers in Egypt and therefore we must care for the stranger and the vulnerable. We are also reminded over and over again that God freed us from Egypt and therefore as God is Holy, we must be Holy. We ultimately learn that holiness is connected to how we act and how we treat others, especially the more vulnerable. It is very clear that we must never forget from where we came, the indignities we suffered, the priceless value of freedom, and the responsibility that comes with it. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a tall, if not impossible order. Our tradition has much to say about that as well, but I like Hillel’s teaching and how he made this statement much more achievable – “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”
It seems so simple. And yet, we are witnessing daily that it is not, even within our own Jewish community. There are so many injustices that our neighbors suffer daily. And while we can see injustices that are done to us, sometimes we find it hard to recognize it when others suffer injustices. For some, religious perspectives make it hard to empathize with and support those whose gender or sexual identity extend beyond the Biblical definitions. And yet, how do we sit back and allow those in the LGBTQ community to suffer? How do we sit back and say or do nothing when states limit their medical care and deny other basic rights? Are not the members of the queer community sacred human beings too – also in God’s image? Do they not love, hurt, yearn, care, bleed, hope – just like you – just like me?
We are living in a time where those who have been marginalized, denied equal access, discriminated against, and harmed are demanding and pleading, once and for all, that we listen and hear their stories, their experiences, their pain, and work with them to create a more just and equitable society for all as the idea of our country aspires to. The racial crisis facing our country, that has been brought front and center in our nation’s consciousness after the George Floyd murder, still comes up against resistance from many (white) people, including those in our community. We cannot run from these issues, regardless of what we believe or how uncomfortable it is.
We are taught from the very beginning of the Torah that all humans are God’s children and all are B’tzelem Elokhim. If we accept the sacredness of all people, and if we are obligated by our tradition to protect and defend the vulnerable in our communities, how do we not address these issues and confront them head on, including our own biases that prevent us from doing our part? As I described in my last blog, Thinking about Thinking, our brain was designed to process quickly to keep us safe, and as a result we routinely make processing errors resulting in hundreds of cognitive biases. It is human to have biases, and it is necessary that we recognize this and slow down our thinking in order to think deeply, reflect, and listen to others, in order to confront our biases. Our brain is designed to be suspicious of anyone not in our family, our community, our “tribe.” Knowing this should make us mindful of how we approach issues of bias and discrimination against people different from us.
Hate crimes are up in this country against minorities. In New Jersey alone there has been over a 70% increase in hate crimes against the Asian community just in this past year. How can we as Jews who have suffered for millennia, in country after country, not listen and show compassion? We have been expelled, denied the right to practice our religion, discriminated against and slaughtered – even after Egypt! We still face vulnerabilities, even in this country. Anit-Semetic incidents have been on the rise as well. Yet, we are also living in times that have never been better for Jews, especially in the United States in spite of the concerning increase in anti-semtic hate crimes. Our own experiences, coupled with our obligations as Jews should be more than enough to call all us to action.
We must live up to what it means to be a light unto all nations, to protect the vulnerable and to pursue justice for all. How we proceed is not as simple, and like the conversations themselves, it is complex and fraught with emotion. The way we address this as adults of course must look different than with children in a Lower and Middle school. While, “It is not our obligation to finish the work, nor are we free to desist from it” – Pirkei Avot.
Our school is proceeding slowly, thoughtfully, framed through a Jewish lense, and with guidance and balance. I will share some of our approaches and strategies about how we engage as a school next week.