On Tuesday morning, I went to Chicago Jewish Day School to sit in the audience and learn from my son and his fifth grade classmates as they presented their own Tedx conference on the Holocaust and being an “up-stander.” One the many things that makes CJDS remarkable is the way Jewish and general studies are interwoven, and Tuesday morning was no exception: Kids made connections between the story of Exodus chapter 1, the Nazis, other genocides, the current war in Syria, and historical figures from the Maccabees to Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and contemporary activist Tamar Manashe. It was wonderful in all the ways we’ve come to expect.
About 20 minutes into the presentations, the head of school was called out into the hallway, and over the next few minutes the rest of the senior leadership was in and out of the room. After about 10 minutes, in the middle of one child’s presentation on women’s rights, the head of school announced that we needed to evacuate the building at the direction of the police, for our own safety. We calmly left the building, along with the rest of the lower school students (our upper school is in another building) and walked to a safe location a few blocks away. Police cars blocked off the street, a major traffic artery, in front of the school, and there was law enforcement visible all over.
The staff had clearly prepared and drilled for this event. They knew exactly where to go, and we parents went along. The staff explained to the children (and us) that we would stay there for a little while as the police inspected the building. The teachers led the kids in singing Purim songs, and as time went on pickup games developed, snacks were brought in, and eventually after about two hours we were able to go back to the building.
As I reflected on the moment, I found myself a mixed up jumble of thoughts and feelings. First and foremost, I was so impressed by and grateful for our school’s preparation, which was a result not only of the administration, but also the board, our relationship with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and our security officers, who are off-duty police and have relationships in the department that they drew on immediately. I was likewise reminded of how resilient and adaptable children are — they took all of this in stride and were basically just happy to have snack and a chance to play.
But it was simultaneously so jarring and upsetting to see little children, 4- and 5-years-old, holding onto a rope as they entered this safe area after being evacuated from their school. I could hardly contain tears as I imagined our youngest son in that group — he was just accepted for junior kindergarten for next fall. It is so beyond unacceptable, and fills me with anger and sadness.
And then I thought, these are first-world problems. At the end of the day, this is harassment, not physical danger. No one was harmed. And plenty of children in our city, not to mention other places in the world, face greater threats on a daily basis.
And finally, I reflected on the fact that this all occurred as 10- and 11-year olds were sharing their learning on anti-Semitism, bystander intervention, citizenship in a democracy, respect and equality. Never in my life in America have I directly encountered the kind of anti-Semitism that is now a regular feature of our days and weeks. I hold the president responsible for much of this due to his campaign rhetoric (his meager words since notwithstanding), and fear the genie will not soon be put back in the bottle.
In the meantime, I offer my gratitude to all our teachers, educators, early childhood workers, JCC staff — my fellow Jewish professionals and volunteers — for the work that you do, as well as those who work more broadly for the security of the Jewish community. We depend on you.
And I remind myself that this isn’t a Jewish problem, it’s an American problem. Our feelings of discomfort and insecurity can and should lead us to solidarity with all who feel threatened. And so I pray that all of us will advocate not only for our own safety as a Jewish community, but for policies, rhetoric, and practices that promote the safety and well-being of all citizens and residents.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson is Founder and Executive Director of Ask Big Questions, a project founded by Hillel International.