Jewish education in a climate of rising antisemitism
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Jewish education in a climate of rising antisemitism

How do we fight antisemitism?

A portion of the exhibit "Americans and the Holocaust," which shows how the Depression, isolationism, xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism shaped responses to Nazism and the Holocaust.  (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
A portion of the exhibit "Americans and the Holocaust," which shows how the Depression, isolationism, xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism shaped responses to Nazism and the Holocaust. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The school I lead sits 1.2 miles from the site of the Oct. 27, 2018, white supremacist terrorist mass shooting that targeted three congregations housed in the Tree of Life building. My home sits 900 feet away. I could hear the police response and shooting battle reverberating through my windows and walls.

It was shocking. But as a child of Holocaust survivors and a student of history, I was not surprised. Antisemitism and hate group activity had been increasing in western Pennsylvania and worldwide. Right-wing extremists were winning elections in heretofore progressive nations. Mass shootings were occurring almost daily. America felt broken.

In the wake of the synagogue attack, the teens took over, with Community Day School alumni among the organizers. They had led a walkout months earlier after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting. This time, within hours of the shooting in their own community, they organized a vigil for that very night.

In an interfaith, multiracial show of solidarity, thousands assembled at the corner of Forbes and Murray. The teens led a Havdalah service, marking the end of Shabbat. They chanted the Misheberach prayer for healing.

How do we fight antisemitism?

With Jewish day school graduates like those who joined with fellow teens to mobilize for the vigil. They knew how to stand up tall and proud as Jews, even hours after a deadly attack on Jews for being Jewish in their neighborhood. They knew how to create a Jewish memorial moment, how to tie it to Shabbat, and how to offer comfort and build community through the rituals and prayers that provide structure and help us know what to say when we are inarticulate with grief.

How do we fight antisemitism?

By meeting antisemites or silenced allies where they are — in one case, the national highways. That is what JewBelong has launched in a campaign featuring digital billboards with various slogans and the hashtag #EndJewHate.

My favorite is: “I promise to love being Jewish 10x more than anyone hates me for it.”

How do we fight antisemitism?

With facts. My son, Boaz Munro, a CDS alum, was terror-stricken by the silence of Jewish progressives when confronted with the antisemitic attacks against Jews in response to the recent Israel-Gaza conflict. Their silence felt deafening, hearkening back to the Weimar Republic in Germany. He understood how Jews as a people were being conflated with the actions of the Israeli government and wrote a call to action that went viral.

Boaz challenged readers to give any other example of a time when progressives have declined to stand up for victims of hate due to the actions of a foreign state to which they’re ethnically tied. Aiming to address the lack of historical awareness that leads to this silence, he’s also embarked on a 20-part Instagram series on “The Jews.” He has completed Chapters 1-11. I don’t know if he realized how ambitious this project was until after he started, but he is determined to take action by calling out inaction and confronting it with truth.

How do we fight antisemitism?

With open discourse. The audience for the crash course in Jewish history that Boaz is creating is not only non-Jews. Many Jews also lack historical perspective, which is why Jewish day schools like mine must have courageous conversations about the toughest topics. If we allow our students to graduate with a brittle sense of Jewish identity, we fail to instill an enduring Jewish commitment. If they are fragile at first poke in high school or college that calls into question what we taught them about Israel or the Holocaust, it is very likely they will question everything they were taught. If they don’t understand our full history, they will accept someone else’s narrative. And while there are tough realities to face, some of the narratives circulating are virulent and worse than any truths we could share. Many Jewish day schools, including mine, struggle in having these difficult conversations. I invite all of us to share what is successful at our schools. We have work to do.

How do we fight antisemitism?

Proudly. After the synagogue shooting, we did what felt simultaneously impossible and imperative — we returned to school that Monday with the Israeli flag flying high, and to my memory, with no parents keeping their children home out of fear. Our eighth-graders created a remembrance service that week at the site of a Holocaust sculpture on our campus.

“You’ve given me some strength to get through today, and for that I thank you,” Tree of Life’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers told our students.

How do we fight antisemitism?

By going into our schools tomorrow and doing the work even better than we did the day before.

How do we fight antisemitism?

My father, Moshe Baran, a Holocaust survivor and partisan fighter, two years ago at age 98, said it best.

Be a better Jew.

If that sounds familiar, it is the closing argument of Bari Weiss’s 2019 book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” (OK, she is also a CDS alum).

If you think I should have credited her before I credited my father, here’s a short and quintessentially Pittsburgh story.

Before the pandemic, Bari’s father, Lou Weiss, would pick up my dad for the 7:30 a.m. minyan at Congregation Beth Shalom.

One morning in 2019, Lou was telling Moshe about his daughter’s new book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” Upon hearing the title, Moshe said, “Well, the answer is easy. Be a better Jew.” And Lou replied, “That is her whole book in four words!”

Bari asserts that, ultimately, the only response to this moment is to practice a Judaism of affirmation, not a Judaism of defensiveness.

Affirming our story doesn’t mean you have to be a more traditionally observant Jew or a more activist Jew. It means knowing what it means to be a Jew. To walk proudly (even if quietly) as a Jew. To speak from a place of knowledge, context and history, knowing that each of those can be defined subjectively and objectively, and knowing how to tell the difference. It means being committed to checking your moral compass against Jewish teachings and being prepared to find out that sometimes your moral compass — and sometimes Jewish teachings — warrant critical appraisal. Most important, affirming our story means that you are compelled and equipped to seek meaning, to find joy, and to love Judaism, however you live it, for the time-tested, life-affirming, family-affirming, justice-affirming habits of mind and heart it has been cultivating for millennia.
That’s how, together, we fight antisemitism. PJC

Avi Baran Munro has been the head of school at Pittsburgh’s Community Day School since 2004. She is a first-generation daughter of two Holocaust survivors and parent of four young adults, all graduates of Community Day School. This is excerpted from The Lookstein Center of Bar-Ilan University’s Jewish Educational Leadership Fall 2021 issue, Jewish Education Amidst Rising Antisemitism. Read the full article at lookstein.org/journal-article/fall-2021/antisemitism-so-close-to-home/.

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