Never To Be Forgotten: How Religious School Tackles Anti-Semitism in the Past and Present

This article was originally featured in our May/June 2019 Bulletin.

By Communications Staff

Our city has seen a significant uptick in anti-Semitic crime, rising from 29 reported incidents in 2017 to 159 in 2018. It seems that anti-Semitic crimes and other hate crimes are on the rise everywhere. Rabbi Davidson and our clergy have been consistently and persistently vocal about drawing attention to these acts of hatred and standing shoulder to shoulder with New York religious and political figures campaigning for peace, unity and justice.

The Reform values we cherish, about which our clergy speak, are reflected in temple events and programming we offer, and perhaps more importantly in the education we provide our Religious School students. While it is our Religious School’s mission to teach the children of our congregation about the richness of our culture, the tenacity of our traditions and the beauty of our rituals, it is also critical to provide an understanding of anti-Semitism. This hatred has its roots throughout our people’s history — from Biblical times, through the Holocaust, right up to the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in United States history: The murder of 13 Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue last October.

Mark Willner’s 6th-grade class begins every year by focusing on the Holocaust. He hands out one text book at the start of the year and asks his students to think of two “nevers,” as he calls them. Students write on the first page of their new books something “never to happen again” and “never to be forgotten.”

Even within a one-day-a-week class, Mark covers a great deal of ground historically. The facts are important, but as the semester progresses, the class evolves. Students are asked to consider and discuss difficult questions, thinking deeply about the horrible human crises, hardships and dilemmas faced by our people both far before and after the Holocaust. In this regard, Mark is an almost boundless resource for such stories, he offers his students numerous opportunities to learn and share their point of view within the context of a guided discussion. Of particular importance to Mark is the following quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, from Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence.

“Six million were wiped off the face of the earth. And there is the danger that they will also be annihilated from our memories. Are they doomed to a twofold annihilation?”

It is a question, Mark said, that he returns to often throughout the year, even when his students move on from the Holocaust and begin studying the history of the Israeli state. As Mark notes, by the time his students reach the end of his class, “they just get it.”

Asking students to consider more than facts, figures and dates allows them to consider deeper questions about our history and the roots of anti-Semitism. Of course, the Religious School must also consider the needs of its youngest students. For them, awareness of anti-Semitism is taught through the story of Purim. Religious School Director Saul Kaiserman said, “We need to be sensitive to not frighten our [youngest] students or cause them to be scared to be Jewish – without avoiding the discussion entirely.” The Purim story provides just enough “emotional distance” for our early grades to discuss its more serious implications while still connecting them with a responsibility to “look out for their people.” By 5th grade, however, the curriculum dives into historical record, referencing the Crusades and The Spanish Inquisition. The 6th grade focuses on the Holocaust and modern Israel, as we heard from Mark Willner. As the students get older, they are given more experiential opportunities. Our Elsie Adler Holocaust Memorial Program is one such opportunity, where students and their families engage with survivors to hear and ask about their childhood experiences during World War II.

“We are able to offer more explicit calls to action for our teens,” Saul notes. At this point, the Religious School starts to offer older students even more experiential opportunities, weaving anti-Semitism more broadly into curriculum by describing it as interconnected with the history of civil and human rights in our nation. Our teens are offered trips during which they provide humanitarian aid or are connected with trailblazing African-American leaders from the ’60s. Externally, students have been encouraged to participate in national campaigns organized by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. These campaigns focus on topics like urging congress to take immediate action on gun violence or condemning anti-Semitism, white supremacy and bigotry. Within the school, older students are encouraged to take up leadership roles, join philanthropic efforts such as the teen philanthropic committee, or help student council decide where to send their collective tzedakah contributions. In 2018, they sent their tzedakah to Tree of Life Synagogue.

“We weave the teaching of anti-Semitism into the entirety of the Religious School curriculum,” Saul said. The arc of teaching anti-Semitism seems clear: Start by using stories, then history, to teach and foster critical thinking. Once empowered, provide the students opportunities to live their Reform values through action. For Mark Willner, teaching Judaism is a “WE” subject: “In my case, the teacher and student are not separate in their experience. It is shared; this subject binds us very close, and for the students, that’s one of the things I want them to come away with.”

For Saul Kaiserman, anti-Semitism is somewhat like a foil, used to emphasize the broader intent of the program:

“There will always be people who will seek to do us or others harm, sometimes for capricious reasons, other times as part of a history of malice. Yet, through our behavior – how we treat one another, how we treat strangers, and most importantly, how we treat those who can’t stand up for themselves – our synagogue becomes a Sanctuary, a safe place not only for us but for all those who seek peace.”