An Open Letter of Frustration and Sadness

If you are a parent or guardian of a child who attends Newton South High School, you received this email from that school’s principal, Tamii Stras, on Wednesday afternoon, March 23rd.

This afternoon, a student reported an antisemitic slur written on a bathroom wall. We have contacted the Newton Police Department and are conducting a full investigation. In addition, we have also reported this incident to the Anti-Defamation League. We take this incident very seriously and are following our established protocols and procedures.

 Antisemitism has no place at South. I am horrified that this happened in our school community and that we are continuing to struggle with incidents of hate, harassment, and discrimination.

 We will be offering spaces for students and adults to process this incident this week and next. Our South Human Rights Council, in conjunction with our Jewish Staff Affinity Group and our Jewish Student Union, will be taking the lead in facilitating this work. We will share more specific information about these opportunities with students and staff.

 I want to assure you that we as a school and district are deeply committed to addressing issues of hate and discrimination. I am confident our South community will come together during this difficult time and hold steadfast in our values of listening first, showing respect, taking responsibility, and most of all, choosing kindness.

This is the fifth reported antisemitic incident in the Newton Public Schools in just the past few weeks. I am perplexed and angry, speechless. I am, as the idiom expresses, at my wit’s end.

As a commissioner on the Newton Human Rights Commission, I am deeply concerned about this persistent expression of hate and what it says about our city. It’s like an infection that slowly poisons the system. Who are the perpetrators? What are they thinking? What factors motivate an adolescent to act out by scrawling a swastika on a bathroom wall or scratching it on a desk? Why do these noxious acts continue?

I know these antisemitic incidents vex the leadership of our city. I know they care deeply and want to take whatever the necessary next steps might be. But… what are the next steps? What are the policy guidelines to prevent hateful acts of antisemitic vandalism in our schools? What aren’t we doing?

As a rabbi, I am intensely angry. When some student chooses to smear a swastika in a local school, they are making a terrible threat and causing deep pain and fear. Any antisemitic act touches a wound centuries old that has still not healed. That Jewish families anywhere ever experience this kind of aggressive display is unforgivable. And when it cuts so close, it becomes almost unbearable.

As a rabbi, as a Jew, I am appalled. I want this to end. I can’t tolerate this mean-spirited, persistent ugliness. I want to find answers and justice and comfort for my people.

And I know this is not the first time I’ve written about this and my ongoing search for the next steps. There is a part of me that feels so discouraged. I wonder if I should just accept that the Newton schools will be plagued with this obscenity every week or so, and I need to get used to it. Someone will see some antisemitic graffiti, report it to the principal, who will report it to the police, who will report it to the Mayor’s office. The principal will inform the school community and, hopefully, like Tamii Stras, make it clear that this behavior is offensive to Jewish students and indeed to all students who care about fairness and inclusivity. Tamii Stras is to be commended for stepping up as she has done and going deep on this plague.

The hard part is not to get numb. The desire to just throw up my hands and walk away, chalking it up to ignorance and divisiveness, is strong. But I must resist. We must all resist. We need to work on a different response that shows that Jews and their allies are united against this ongoing crisis in an active way.

It’s about getting the right people in the room. It’s time to look for new answers and develop new strategies for confronting hate. This is not easy work.

I am resigned to the likelihood that the letter I included in this essay will not be the last announcement I receive about a swastika in a school. But I am committed to the proposition that we can actually do something about it, something that is clear and cogent. In times so filled with vitriol and bitterness, as exhausting as it may be, it is up to us to turn the tide.

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