Divre Harav – March, 2023

Back in December, I set a goal for myself to meet with the superintendents of the eight largest school districts in the Grand Rapids area, plus East Grand Rapids and Holland, to talk about the issue of antisemitism. We’ve been hearing reports in the religious school of antisemitic incidents or micro-aggressions from our middle school and high school students. Because of the rise of antisemitism locally and nationally, I thought it would be important to introduce myself to the superintendents, open up a channel of communication if and when incidents occur, and find out what they are doing to track incidents, to react to incidents, and to prevent incidents proactively. I also believe that a district which has a plan for handling antisemitic incidents will also be well equipped to handle other forms of racism or attacks against LGBTQ students or staff.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. So far, I have met with the superintendents of Kentwood, Forest Hills, Rockford, Hudsonville, West Ottawa, Grandville, Jenison, and EGR Public Schools. Most districts realize that there is a problem and have a clear system in place to track incidents. Of the three districts with the least diversity, one has been actively working with their board to put diversity training programs in place. This involved convincing the board that incidents of aggression towards religious, ethnic, and racial minorities do exist and need to be addressed. Another has programs to increase diversity and works with the Urban League, the ADL, Grand Valley, and the Jewish Federation to develop curricula. The third relies on state-mandated curriculum to teach history, holocaust, and world culture.

All districts track major incidents, although several said that unless the incident gets referred to a school administrator or counselor, it would not be entered into the system. Many incidents go unreported because the students don’t want to put themselves in the spotlight, so they are handled quietly, if they are reported at all. We have suggested to our students that it is very important that they take a public stand and report incidents. It is in the only way that they will be taken seriously, district-wide.

Two superintendents reach out proactively to groups of students selected or self-selected to represent the diversity from each of the schools in district. They meet regularly with these groups of students to hear about what is happening and what they need to address. I found this to be the most positive, proactive, statement of support for their students.

One superintendent talked about how they address all incidents whether or not they occur inside a school or during school hours. This district believes that any act of racism or aggression involving its students affects its school, no matter where or when it occurs. I found this to be a strong statement of support for a welcoming and safe school environment. Another district addresses only major incidents that happened outside of school, but this, too, represents a strong statement against aggression.

The districts with more diversity seem to have fewer problems, but one district of about 50% Latinx, 50% middle – upper class white, is aware that such a sharp divide creates problems. The superintendent previously worked in the Detroit area and has drawn on the Holocaust Museum Center of Farmington Hills and the ADL for help in addressing incidents.

This is a quick summary of my impressions. All of the districts that I have met with know that I am available to meet with students, faculty, or staff for proactive education or to help them unpack and respond after an incident occurs. Please contact me if you are interested in the specific details of my conversation with your school district.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Shem, Ham, and Yafet – Noah’s sons. Shem is considered to be the ancestor of middle eastern peoples. In 1770, Scholars of the German Göttingen School of History, who history as an academic discipline, coined the term ‘Semite’ along with other terms to categorize people by race. About 100 years later, an Austrian Jewish scholar, Moritz Steinschneider, coined the term antisemitism specifically to refer to anti-Jewish prejudice.

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