Combating anti-Semitism with education
Anti-Semitism, defined as “hostility or prejudice toward Jews,” is more visible than ever, from white nationalist chants of “Jews will not replace us” at a deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 to the horrific shooting this October at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead.
When students taped a swastika on the back of a Jewish student during class this December, Principal Miki Gromacki decided to take immediate action to curb anti-Semitism at AHRS.
Though the students responsible for the action were disciplined, educational advisory sessions were held for all grades, and Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA) Rabbi Benjamin Weiner met with concerned students and staff after school, Dr. Gromacki felt more needed to be done.
“There was a sense that something longer term needed to take place to try and prevent future anti-Semitic incidents at the high school,” she said.
She reached out to students and to Keren Rhodes, the Youth and Family Education Director at the JCA, for help. Ultimately, the group settled on offering a number of 60-90 minute workshops after school, where students and staff could learn about anti-Semitism and how to prevent it. Between 15-20 people have attended the workshops.
The theme of the first workshop, held in January, was “The Roots of Prejudice”; it focused on defining terms and building a base of understanding about the roots of prejudice.
The second meeting, held in February, focused on the history of anti-Semitism. It looked past the Holocaust, and compared events throughout history to current events in the United States.
In the third meeting, in late March, Rhodes and students worked together to figure out how students could move forward, take action, and advocate.
“We are hoping to come out of the third session with some concrete actions that can be taken within the ARHS community to help bring awareness to anti-Semitism, and minimize the occurrence of future incidents,” she said.
Dr. Gromacki believes these workshops are important for a number of reasons. “Carving out time and space with an effective facilitator like Keren allows us to bring students and staff together to demonstrate our commitment to [combating anti-Semitism] and to having courageous conversations,” she said.
Students Eva Weintraub and Zevulon Lane have both taken on roles in planning and carrying out the workshops.
Weintraub said she helped put together the meeting after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, so Dr. Gromacki knew to come to her for support.
Weintraub said she likes the meetings because they focus on “making permanent changes,” rather than being a knee jerk reaction. She said that educating people like this “Shouldn’t be a reactionary thing, it should be a preemptive thing.”
Dr. Gromacki agreed and credited the students for their hard work.
“I commend the students involved for their dedication to the sessions and their willingness to share their thoughts and narratives with me and each other,” she said. “As a non-Jew, I have found the experience powerful and enlightening. I encourage more students and faculty to attend [future sessions like these]. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with students and learning together is a model I embrace. I believe we should make it available more often.”