Traditionally, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is spent as a day off from school and work. Instead, this year at Schechter, our students were immersed in learning about the life of Dr. King and his great significance. It is well known that many great Jewish leaders marched side by side with Dr. King; and his calls for equality and social justice resonate in the souls of Jewish people. It is therefore only fitting that our students dedicated this past Monday to learning about Dr. King, our shared values and our joint dedication to action.
Dr. King’s example is more timely today than ever before. Our country is deeply divided, racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism are prevalent and our children are exposed to a constant influx of negative news, divisiveness, intolerance, and prejudice. SSDS’ celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week was a time for hope with the message that we all can be the vehicle of change through the words we choose and the actions we take.
During Dr. King’s final days, he put his primary focus on poverty and economic injustice. Throughout our day of learning, our students were reminded that there is a better way, and that people can come together to make a profound difference in the lives of others. In that spirit, and in his memory, the SSDS Kehillah is focusing on food insecurity in our community, which has been worsened due to the pandemic. Valerie Anderson, from the Center for Food Action, and Susan Greenbaum, from Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS), spoke to our entire Kehillah about food insecurity and the work that their organizations do to feed the hungry in our communities. Our students learned that the Center for Food Action serves 1,000 families per week and fed over 120,000 individuals in 2020, up 50 percent from the 61,000 served in 2019. They also learned that JFCS provides Kosher food boxes to 500 families every two weeks. Translating their words into our action, our Kehillah is participating in a food drive to support both organizations as they are in significant need of food for the hungry in our immediate area.
To further instill these lessons to our students, our Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day programming served as a launchpad of our schoolwide, “Words Matter” campaign, a theme that will continue, and you will hear more about, as the year continues to progress. Throughout the day our students began to investigate the power of words.
Our Early Childhood classrooms spent time thinking about how they speak to one another and the words that they use. They learned about Dr. King and how he used words to make a difference. They broadened their conversations and started thinking about how words matter in our larger community. Each class came up with a list of important words that guide their behavior in their classrooms. In Kindergarten, one student shouted out, “Teamwork!” while in another Kindergarten classroom the children thought about words that make them feel good and why. Our Pre-K students thought about how they could use words to be kind to one another, making sure to include “Can I help you?” and “Do you want to play?” All the EC classes created word walls, highlighting their choices, to hang in or near their classrooms.
Throughout the day our Lower School began to examine the power of words. In third grade, after examining the power of the words of prayer, students read the beginning of Bereshit and learned that God created the world and everything in it through words. At the end of the day, the 1-4 Kehillah came together (virtually) to share their learnings about Dr. King and the power of their speech.
Reflections from our Lower School students:
Our Middle School students studied the power of MLK’s “Big Words” and explored how the concept of nonviolent change, like anti-hate campaigns, affected the social change movements of the 20th century. In their art classes, middle school students created original anti-hate campaigns to submit to the NJ Attorney General’s “Stand Up Against Hate” contest. In Hebrew language classes students looked at various pieces of poetry, song, folktales and clips to understand how words harm and how words heal. Fifth and sixth grade Tanakh classes looked at MLK and Moshe as upstanders and leaders of social revolutions, while the seventh and eighth grade Tanakh classes found and debated the Biblical references in the “I Have A Dream” speech. Eighth graders also examined how words we use to describe events cast shadows into the future. They specifically focused on words that were used on January 6th around the Capitol Hill riots.
One of Schechter’s Core Jewish Values is Tikkun Olam – “We inspire our students to pursue peace, compassion, freedom, and equality. We empower our students to make a difference by doing acts of Tzedek (justice) and Gemilut Hasadim (loving kindness).” The message to our SSDS students this past Monday was that while prejudice, hatred and fear are still prevalent in our society – we are better than this. Living our value of Tikkun Olam, we can fight back by teaching kindness, inclusion, mutual respect and love, and living those values through our actions and words. Our Jewish values and tradition demand that we choose justice, righteousness and acceptance! And as our children showed, they are assimilating these values deeply.